Contrasting Musical Cultures: Mali, Gypsy and Americanus Hipsterus

Sir Barken Hyena writes:

I’ve long found myself frustrated by the musical culture I’ve had to live in, and been drawn to other cultures as a kind of refuge. At home sick for a day recently, I watched three documentaries on Netflix that aptly highlighted my likes and dislikes, and what I think a healthy musical culture can be. And what an unhealthy one never is.

First up was “I’ll Sing For You”, a well-named and refreshingly unpretentious affair, about the Malian guitarist and singer Boubacar “KarKar” Traore, who’s almost an institution in his home country. Part biopic, part travelogue, part music video, we follow KarKar around Mali while he plays his guitar and sings in various impromptu settings: on a boat sailing down a river, on a train, in villages and homes and ruins. This clip gives a good idea of the flavor of the film (that’s Malian superstar Ali Farke Toure on the right)

Some time is spent on KarKar’s glory years when Mali first gained independence – he’s something of a patriotic figure there – and his subsequent travails as an immigrant in France when he dropped out of sight, and his return and rediscovery. But not too much is made of this, he’s certainly never described as any kind of suffering artist struggling to bring his creative visions to the world. Rather he’s shown as grateful for the mere opportunity to sing for us. Which he does with deep feeling and infinite grace, as the clip shows.

Mali is desperately poor and it’s clear that the people struggle daily with their poverty. One result of that struggle is a musical culture that’s bursting with vitality and feeling, and the Malians are clearly damn proud of it. With good reason.

Next up was “Life After Django Reinhardt”, about celebrating the Gypsy jazz great’s 100th centennial. A collection of guitarists who have followed in his footsteps, some of them also Gypsies, explore their love and devotion to this phenomenal musician. Like “I’ll Sing For You”, it’s an unpretentious production, with lots of vibrant playing and scenes of musicians just having a great time doing what they do best, what they love. They relate various fond memories about how the came to know Django’s music and what it’s done for them. There is little to no discussion of money, the music business, how all of these guitarists make a living, or even if they are professionals at all. That’s not what these guys are about. What they’re about comes through loud and clear in every frame: the pure enjoyment of music, for it’s own sake.

See if you can keep your feet still for this clip (the young guy at the end is Django’s grandson):

And lastly, (sigh) we come back home to the US and “Echotone”, a rambling and definitely highly pretentious doc about the Austin, Texas music scene and the efforts of some poor struggling artists to maintain their integrity in a world deeply hostile. Besides some background about the impact of the city’s explosive growth on the music scene, mostly we follow around various hopefuls as they try to build careers out of their music. In contrast to the other two, I didn’t enjoy even one moment of the musical material, which is the usual indie garbage churned out these days. To my ears there’s not one moment of honest music here. It’s all playacting. There is talent, no question. And dedication, hard work, yada yada, all admirable I suppose. But what is it all for? Why do they bother? Unlike the other docs, this one is pretty much always about money, in one way or another. Like how the musicians never have any, and how the city government never wants to spend money on the music scene, which is somehow a goldmine waiting to be dug at the same time it’s unable to pay for the hipster’s guitar strings.

The constant claim is that they just want to do their thing but strangely they never actually act like it. Mostly they talk about their efforts to overcome public indifference to what they’re doing, while very unconvincingly protesting indifference to the same. And the music clips reveal a discomfiting self-conscious aspect. They remind me of the kids in music stores trying out electric guitars, always looking over their shoulders to see if they’re being noticed while they jam out. Rock stars in their own minds, but they can’t bring themselves to admit that’s what they want, because of the strange obsession with “authenticity”, whatever that is, which is the one thing that escapes their grasp. Well, that and money. And that’s what an unhealthy culture, which this is in my view, can’t produce: real music.

All are on Netflix Instantview.

About Sir Barken Hyena

IT professional and veteran of start ups. Life long musician and songwriter. Voracious reader of dead white guys. Lover of food and women.
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6 Responses to Contrasting Musical Cultures: Mali, Gypsy and Americanus Hipsterus

  1. Fenster says:

    thanks for the netflix cite. will view, and expect to have your kind of reaction.

    the temptation is to say noble poverty creates authentic music and corrupting wealth the reverse. i wonder how much though is simply due to the fact that wealthy countries let all have musical aspirations while not that many are actually any good at it. used to be anyone could have a guitar. now most middle class kids can have the recording studio too.


    • Sir Barken Hyena says:

      That’s right I think, and their aspirations are constantly encouraged by the everyone-is-a-creative-snowflake thing that’s everywhere now. Wealth has certainly fed great music in the past, though in aristocratic ages mostly.


  2. Maule Driver says:

    With every sound ever recorded now available to anyone. And with machines that can not only produce almost any sound but also take anyone’s voice, put it in key and otherwise do whatever one wants with it, original performances by vocal and instrumental craftsmen may no longer be central to contemporary musical culture. Post-decades of sampling, rap, syn, electro, etc, the DJ has become one of the emerging creative forces.

    It’s not surprising that what seems right to this aging ear is only played by aging performers. Nor is it surprising that the current manifestation of live performances by live performers in front of live audiences seems dispirited, flat, and self referential.


  3. chucho says:

    A nicely edited trailer, but I’d imagine these bands play to mostly empty rooms outside of Austin.

    Rock in 2012 is a marginal enterprise, a vanity project. But instead of embracing traditionalism (as the Django devotees above, or let’s say bluegrass musicians here at home), indie rockers for some reason think they’re doing something artistically relevant. They’ve made some really bad music in the last decade, and should be ashamed of themselves.


  4. Neephee says:

    I think this s a great review and makes me want to watch the first two films, even though I am no sort of music enthusiast What you convey is two promotion of engaging docs about people who love people and revel in the moments they can come together and enjoy each other in the genuine moments of music. Those artists are not so much musicians as they are sharing a God given tool they happily use to express and spread joy. They are living their vocation, rather then their “occupation” (as the third film group is trying to do). Boiled down, I think your review summarizes the first two films as an expression of shared love versus the third film which portrays the story of self-absorbed of egos.


  5. Pingback: All What Jazz | Uncouth Reflections

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