Laswell on Trial: A Dub Debate
—This is a very good record by one of the world’s most innovative musicians . . . but that musician is not Ethiopian singer/songwriter Ejigayehu “Gigi” Shibabaw. Gigi’s first album, which came out in 2001, was rather a masterpiece in its own way, with stirring songs in Amharic and an all-star cast brought together by producer Bill Laswell. Now, two years later, Laswell has recreated Gigi’s record as a full-scale dub production—or, as he calls it, a “reproduction and mix translation”—and it manages to recast the beautiful sounds and textures of the original in a brand-new framework, an ambient dub album that actually swings.
—I disagree. Not only is Illuminated Audio a mere shadow of the original record on which it is based, it is a work of cultural appropriation. Clearly, Laswell can’t sell any records on his own, so he tacks on Gigi’s name to move copies of what amounts to a vanity project for him, a tribute to himself, a record where most traces of Gigi have been erased, dubbed right out of existence. How can you have a Gigi album on which Gigi barely exists?
—Oh, calm down. That’s all part of dub tradition. When a dub version is approved (and this was certainly approved by Gigi, she’s quoted in the press release and everything), the original version becomes clay for a new sculptor, raw material to be done with as the dub artist sees fit. And, considering that Laswell was the original producer and arranger of Gigi’s record, it’s not like he’s just sailing in and messing around with someone else’s work. Gigi was a record by Gigi, but it was also a record by Laswell, and Dereje Makonnen, Henry Threadgill, Herbie Hancock, Karsh Kale, Amina Claudine Myers, Tony Cedras, Hamid Drake, and a whole bunch of other people from a lot of different places in the world. What, are you mad because they weren’t all listed on the cover too?
—No, I’m just wondering why Laswell didn’t have his own name on this. When King Tubby or Lee Perry did dub versions of other people’s work, they released it under their own names. So why not here? Is it because Laswell’s “mix translations” of Santana and Hendrix didn’t sell as well as Gigi’s album? Or is it because he feels guilty about jacking all her original ideas and taking out her vocals and calling the result his own? Either way, this should be called Bill Laswell’s Illuminated Audio: Gigi Remixed, or something like that.
—I’ll grant you that; there’s no way this should be called a Gigi album. But you’re being far too harsh on Laswell with your mischaracterization of this project. There’s still plenty of Gigi on this record: all the songs are hers, you can recognize the original melodies and grooves on every single “new” track, and many of the new tracks still have her vocals on them—it’s just that they are no longer the main focus of every single song. That’s the way dub works; songs are remade by being broken and put back together in different ways. Look at “Nafekeñ”: It’s still the same song, but now when Gigi’s singing comes through it does so in little sneaky ways, peeking around the corners of the song, as it were. But just because Graham Haynes’ flugelhorn is now the lead instrument doesn’t make Laswell some kind of cultural imperialist. Do we say the same about Tubby or Scratch or Mikey Dread?
—No, but why is Gigi’s voice the main subtraction from every one of these ten tracks? Without the voice, there are no lyrics; without the lyrics, there is no Gigi. Sure, it’s all ostensibly based on her melodies—but you know as well as I do that dub plays fast and loose with melodic structure. What I’m saying is that these “reproductions” are mostly just monuments built to Laswell’s skill at arrangement. Check out “Abet Wubet”, for example. The original was a clever allegory about how Ethiopians who wear simple shemma garments are actually being quite revolutionary, how it’s a slap in the face of “Western” fashion. In this new version, Gigi’s actual voice is gone (some backing vocals remain)—therefore, the song is no longer about shemma or Ethiopian self-pride or anything. Instead, what we get is the big fat bassline (played by Laswell, naturally), snippets here and there of other instruments (arranged by Laswell), and dub effects (produced by Laswell). Talk about your Western fashions!
—Okay, I have to stop you right there. If Laswell is such an evil scheming Westerner (and don’t you really mean “American” when you say that?), then why is he even bothering with African or world music at all? Because he loves it, that’s why. Bill Laswell is a brave soul, a traveler, a collaborator. It’s not like he’s Paul Simon or Sting, traveling the globe in search of a new form to rip off every few years—he works with musicians, they create new things together. And it’s likely that this dub version of Gigi’s record will bring a few more people to the original; is that a bad thing?
—Certainly not. But let me just say that to do a “new” version of an entire album implies that there is something wrong with the original. I know that Illuminated Audio is supposed to refer to the illuminated manuscripts that comprise the major part of Ethiopian art. Which pisses me off a little, because it’s just kind of a condescending title. But let’s look at the title a little more closely. What, exactly, needed to be “illuminated” about Gigi? Nothing! I admit that I’m just playing with conspiracy theories here. I just wish that this was a new Gigi record instead of a warmed-over version of an old one.
—Well, that’s your problem right there. There isn’t a new Gigi record yet, so this will have to do. And yeah, it’s not as “original” or as “authentic” as the original, whatever those two poor overworked words mean. But come on—isn’t it pretty nonetheless? Listen to the way those synthesizers float on “Gud Fella”, only to introduce Gigi’s soaring muted voice and those bubbling congas and talking drums and those guitar washes and (yes) the bass, throbbing portentously beneath it all. Check out “Tew Ante Sew”, which is now officially the funkiest thing in the world, with its approximately 14 different rhythm patterns all intersecting with some acid-rock Afrobeat guitar! When a Wayne Shorter or Threadgill sax solo floats to the top of a mix, when Cedras’ accordion line becomes the focus of a song rather than just another element, isn’t that incredibly dope?
—See, I’d just rather hear the original works. I guess I don’t blame Laswell, ultimately; he’s not evil or scheming or anything. I just really love Gigi’s songs, and I don’t see what was so wrong with them in the first place so that they needed to be all re-dubbed at all, especially when the result is (to my ears) excessively ambient, cautious to the point of not exactly existing, and just not worth that many listens.
—Well, if we’re talking about ears, mine dig this a lot. It’s a new work of art based on another work of art (with permission), it’s got moments of incredible beauty and moments of strangeness and fun, and it’s really excellent music for long car trips and for the bedroom. In my universe, you can have both Gigi and Illuminated Audio. And I choose both.
—And that’s fine, but I don’t. Wouldn’t you rather just have a new Gigi or Tabla Beat Science record, with new material from both Gigi and Laswell?
—Me too. At least we agree on something.