[19 April 2007]
How to keep up with the current explosion of music and avoid what Bob Doskis, President and Co-Founder of Six Degrees Records, calls Middle Age Music Stagnation Syndrome (MAMSS)? Backspin: A Six Degrees 10 Year Anniversary Project suggests that the labels might do this for us. Indeed, label compilations have become increasingly popular, so much so that label recognition is now touted as a prime characteristic of the music connoisseur. Those of us who do keep up are expected to be familiar not only with the various artists who populate our preferred field or genre, but also with the labels that sign them. The onset of MAMSS, a syndrome that might affect youth as well as the middle-aged, goes hand in hand with a growing or already firmly rooted ignorance concerning the industry itself. So it is that labels such as Six Degrees step in and offer to do the difficult work of selecting from a body of signed artists to create a musical canon that works simultaneously to educate, entertain, and shamelessly promote the label under the guise of celebrating ten years in the business.
Don’t get me wrong, the Six Degrees project is an enjoyable listen, the real treat in this auditory smorgasbord being MIDIval PunditZ’s cover of Led Zeppelin’s “Four Sticks”. In exchange for the guitar-heavy original, producers, remixers and club impresarios Gaurov Raina and Tapan Raj employ a wide array of instruments—including, in addition to electric and acoustic guitars, the Indian dhol or drum, and the flute—to highlight and re-inflect the dominant musical phrase rhythm. The result is an eerily yet beautifully upbeat rendition, which, as the artists themselves explain in the disc’s liner notes, pays homage “to the greatest band of all time”.
This is what all of the artists featured on Backspin have in common. In response to Duskis’ request “to produce a new cover version of a song that has been influential to them and their development as musicians”, MIDIval PunditZ and company mark the label’s milestone by reinforcing, as opposed to challenging, dominant musical canons in the United States. The “rightful” influence of Led Zeppelin, Sting, the Cure, Jimi Hendrix, and Pink Floyd is merely confirmed by their (back)spins on familiar classics. Thus it is that Six Degrees, in keeping with its usual spin on world music, strives for accessibility while also endorsing what is undeniably a political platform. World music, the label implies, is ideally accessible; that is, it stimulates a certain kind of pan-cultural understanding. It should come as no surprise that MIDIval PunditZ features on the soundtrack for Mira Nair’s Monsoon Wedding, a film from the Indian diaspora that successfully bridged national boundaries.
It is not that world music artists do not have a right to pay homage to the “greats” and, admittedly, the “greats” covered on Backspin include Jamaica-born Bob Marley. Nor is it that they do not have the right to strive for what the industry terms “cross-over” appeal. It’s that a label committed to the exploration of world music traditions should choose, as its 10 Year Anniversary Project, a selection of covers that merely reiterate what has already been declared worthy of covering. Or, to be fair to a label that does put out quality recordings, perhaps it is that in response to Duskis’ request the artists signed with Six Degrees should choose, as their guiding influence, a song by an artist whose “greatness” is not in question. As a colleague of mine recently lamented, global flows tend to run in one direction and, as a result, the West’s grasp on global power appears intractable. While listeners in India and Africa may be familiar with the Cure, listeners in Europe and North America have a much lesser understanding of musical traditions deemed “inaccessible” by the world music labels. Six Degrees might promote itself as a democratic, apolitical purveyor of the world music scene, but its Anniversary Project suggests that the corporate arbitration of musical taste is anything but innocent.
The disc does double duty in this sense, presenting, on the one hand, a selection of rightfully canonized, familiar classics to which the listener might also pay homage, and, on the other, a selection of world music candidates whose craft is both influenced and confirmed by their own knowledge of music traditions in the West. Led Zeppelin endorses MIDIval PunditZ and Six Degrees endorses both, making for the perfect antidote for MAMSS; for if the originals point to those artists we shouldn’t have stopped listening to, the covers introduce us to those we have been missing out on.
As introductions go, this one is very good. There is a certain amount of pleasure in hearing our favourite songs “indigenized” by artists who, thanks to the proliferation of independent music labels such as Six Degrees, are made readily available at mainstream music retailers. And for those songs that might not be our favorites, there is a certain amount of pleasure in hearing how the songs produce entirely different meanings when shifted to other contexts. Take Karsh Kale’s cover of Sting’s “Spirits in the Material World”. The following lines suggest a unique relationship with the nation when they are sung by a member of the Indian diaspora in the United States and revisited with an upbeat yet haunting electronica: “There is no political solution / To our troubled evolution / I have no faith in the constitution / This is the bloody revolution”. In altering Sting’s original “This is no bloody revolution” to “This is the bloody revolution”, Kale insists on making the song fit his fraught position as a marginalized subject in a country that privileges assimilation. There may be no revolution from Sting’s standpoint in the early ‘80s, but from Kale’s contemporary position of enunciation, revolution is ongoing. Sting himself seems to understand this, since, according to Kale, he wrote in response to hearing the cover that “You sound like you know what you’re singing about”.
Karsh Kale, MIDIval PunditZ, and the other contributors on Backspin do pay homage to dominant, musical canons, but they also expose the ways in which the West must accommodate the new and unfamiliar. If nothing else, the Six Degrees 10 Year Anniversary Project demonstrates that, like it or not, the world is in the home and it is here to stay. The Six Degrees catchphrase “everything is closer than you think” might then garner more legitimacy than it at first appears. The backspins on this menu doubtless serve as an introduction to world music in a pinch, and, perhaps incidentally, provoke us to reconsider what gets marketed as world music and why.