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Consolidating Culture

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In such creations one finds evidence of the Japanese people's 'innate propensity toward shrinking things'.

"Akay omay".

When I first heard it I did a double take. Said "huh?" Never heard such sounds before. It was a phrase between acquaintences spoken in greeting of the New Year.

So on my first day back at work last month, when a colleague passed me in the corridor and uttered "ake ome", then smiled without so much as a grovel, grimace or bow, I was perplexed. Sure, I've only lived here for twelve years, but I've come to feel a certain confidence that I may actually have mastered this one aspect of Japanese life: the moment when acquaintances rise with an air of consequence, genuflect vigorously, and enthusiastically bleat, "akemashite ohmedetou gozaimasu" (congratulations on entering the New Year). Then in unison we offer the standard comeback, "kotoshi mou yoroshiku onegaishimasu" (this coming year, also, please be good to me).

And though it makes little sense in translation, such sounds are meaningful to folks over here. These phrases are symbolic as well as spiritually cleansing. Not to mention good for team morale. And so, I've taken great pains to practice those long chains of gotta-say-its. A lot. Not insignificantly, because it's a mouthful, and, being a mouthful, it's just the kind of fictitious carriage we culturally challenged foreigners clamber into, foolishly believing it will actually deliver us somewhere of substance in what is otherwise a rather insuperable obstacle course: this cipher society known as Japan.

Until all at once, the certitude combusts. The cultural conundrum expands. In place of one's hard-purchased belief in mastery, a new puzzle sidles forth. Akay-ohmay, I thought, What the hell is THAT?

Well, okay. Yeah, I get it. I just had to think about it a bit. I just had to look around and ask myself, why should discourse about the New Year be any different than talk of, say, Brad Pitt, obsession for pre-pubescent girls, Mister Donuts, and cell phone e-mail? That is, Bu ra pee, Loli-kon, Me su dou and yubi komi (respectively) in local parlance. Suggesting that just like the famous Hollywood star, the teenage sex trade, chain donut shops, and digitized interaction, this business about ake ome might very well stroll along my beat — the realm of ReDotPop — where we can read cultural values and societal structure through contemporary ways of doing. Or, in the case of ake ome, ways of saying.

ReDotPop is rife with fads. Over here, it seems, the wheels of commerce are kept spinning by the seasonal appearance of the new, next thing; from quirky gadgets to pet phrases to alternative lifestyles to revolutionary mindsets. Over the past few decades, for instance, ReDotPop has played host to (and cashed in on) the birth and popular adoption of the "jogging boom", the "tennis boom", the "golfing boom", the "my car boom", the "my home" boom, the "Juliana's (or disco) boom", the "brand (or designer goods) boom", the "tour (or foreign vacation) boom", the "hip-hop boom", the "loose socks boom", the "ko-gyal (high school girl) boom", the "ganguro (impossible to define) boom", the "Internet boom" and the "keitai (or cell phone) boom". Some of these fashions have endured, while most have proven as ephemeral as the April cherry blossoms: sprouting all at once, sparkling gloriously in the public eye, then all too quickly fading, withering, plopping to the ground only to be trampled beneath the feet of a peripatetic people, bustling onward to the next-new-thing.

So, much like a passing fad wherein teenage girls painted their faces chocolate brown, then accented their eye sockets with seemingly ten-centimeter swaths of ghostly white (so that they conjured up the image of raccoons who mistakenly wandered out of the woods, suddenly caught in the glare of a car's headlights), don't bet on ake ome being around this time next year. On the other hand, despite the inevitable demise it will experience in popular consciousness, as a phenomenon, ake ome is still well worth pondering. Why? Because it can provide insight into what ReDotPop is really all about — its motive force, its internal design, its raison d'etre.

Aside from the resolute profit motive, the commonality lurking within most of ReDotPop's creations is the irreverent, licentious, laissez-faire impulse coursing through Japan's youth and, inevitably, percolating into the middle to upper echelons of Japanese society. As with other youthful productions, in ake ome one encounters the recent predilection for a toned-down past and preference for a tuned-out present. Ake ome is hip — it's "cazh". Ake ome is the linguistic equivalent of these kids' favorite recent public behavior: sitting on their butts in front of stations or along sidewalks, just for the sake of hanging. Smoking, jiving, baiting, then laughing at the disapproving elders who pass by. For a Japan erected upon a foundation of rank, respect and routine, we're talking pretty heady — even revolutionary — behavior, here. In ake ome we spy the current mood incarnate: the weltanshauung wherein traditions are tossed to the wind, conventions are conflagrated, formalities are fricasseed. All that in four simple syllables; in two shortened words. My goodness, what a potent thing this ake ome is.

Or maybe not.

After all, what is so particularly Japanese about concocting code? We all engage in shorthand, right? "Nine-Eleven" has become part of our lexicon, rather than the seemingly unendurable phrase "September Eleventh", or else the more accurate "World Trade Towers' catastrophe". Too long to say, perhaps; more likely, too close to a concrete reality to spell out. Before that tragic day, 9-11 meant something else: "nine-one-one", the symbol of all emergencies. On the lighter side, people on the go stop and shop at "7-Eleven"; some gamblers favor "lucky seven"; gluttons of all sorts go at it, "twenty-four seven". And it's not confined to numbers, of course. Alfred Hitchcock resorted to the image of a train penetrating the black hole of a tunnel to punctuate Cary Grant's embrace of Eva Marie Saint in the denouement of North by Northwest. Visit MTV or view TV commercials for more than 30 seconds and one is bound to encounter a euphemism, an inter-textual reference, a code, a metaphor, a connotation. What such tags reveal is that humans of all stripes are adept at parsimony. It isn't only the Japanese who compact and reduce, distill to essence, delve into signification, martial euphemism, conjure symbols, create signs to stand for larger things. This impulse, these ploys, exist irrespective of national boundaries, precisely because we humans are, well, human. It is part and parcel of the thing that we've created and exist within-society--that we, its constituents, will grow along with and through our continually mutating languages.

The standard line on Japan, though, has been that external imperatives-exigencies-have prevailed, thus providing greater impetus for the contraction impulse. Historically short on resources, eternally bereft of space, yet ever long on people per square hectare, Japan's need for transmogrification, simplification, rationalization, reduction, has extended well beyond language. In all aspects of human life, alteration has been unavoidable. Without careful attention to detail, or so the argument goes, without constant monitoring of the environment, absent concern for feelings, sans contemplation of consequences, we Japanese would step on each other's toes, and quite soon be at one another's throats. Repacking and refinement are essential skills in such a milieu, for without it there'd be civil war.

The Japanese obviously read their Hobbes and, as a result, chose to nurture what O-Young Lee has dubbed "The Compact Culture". Hence, Lee argues, the compact cars, origami Buddhas or sumptuous seven "course" feasts housed within six by eight (inch) boxes. In such creations one finds evidence of the Japanese people's "innate propensity toward shrinking things". Leading me to wonder: should we not place ake ome among the items on Mr. Lee's list? Hey, and while we're at it, why not add Dontosai?

Don't what?

For those of you who may not know, dontosai is an annual local ritual that began as a "fire festival". The spirits invited into one's home during "ancestors day" and then again on the dawning of the new year, are channeled into objects such as arrows, and bells, and gold lamé placards with sprigs of pine, then tossed on a pyre at the local shrine, thereby driving the wayward spirits home.

Exactly how is this a compacting ritual? Well, dontosai may have begun as a fire ritual, but the way it is now understood and practiced it is an occasion for participants to atone for the failures of the past while also indemnifying themselves for the year to come. Two birds with one stone. How's that for consolidating culture? Pretty convenient, right?

Of course, this being Japan, none of this can be purchased without some strain. First of all, there's the minor matter of dealing with a second compression. You see, over time dontosai has become embellished by the overlay of a "hadaka matsuri"-a so-called "bare skin festival", which is a common form of worship throughout Japan. As one can intuit, depending on the time of year, such a rite can easily serve as a powerful act of renunciation and expiation. In a word, it's a sadistic imposition and masochistic acceptance of punishment; a predicament that most every Japanese is familiar with.

Which is why, during dontosai, participants are made to strip down to a loin cloth and then walk or jog about 10 kilometers to the local shrine. This is January, in the north country, so we're talking about three degree weather here. Sometimes there's snow to slog your bare feet through, sometimes just frozen concrete to slap your bare feet across. In short, there's no getting off scot-free here. And if that weren't enough, participants are supposed to run in a team, so that generally means exposing parts of one's flesh that co-workers had only heretofore imagined and henceforth will spend the next year of daily encounters remembering. Every freckle, blemish, dimple, wayward hair, love handle, hint of cleavage (front and back), and excess roll that jiggles the entire 10 kilometers is what will be on the tip of their cerebella until the next ritualistic run. This will be up AND back to corporate headquarters, so, there is some cost involved. Social and psychological.

And then, of course, there's running past the hundreds of cars and thousands of pedestrians making their way toward the shrine, all of them waving and clapping and pointing and commenting and, above all, noticing — every freckle, blemish, dimple, wayward hair, love handle, hint of cleavage (front and back), and excess roll that jiggles. So, there you have even more cost involved.

Next, have I mentioned that it's COLD? Cold nough so that one can witness his or her breath vaporize in his or her wake. Of course, heavy breathing isn't supposed to happen, since there's a slip of white paper planted firmly between one's lips — the better to ensure that he and she refrain from conversation. Silence is a symbol of abstinence, hence, of sacrifice. This slip of paper between the lips is compacting incarnate. Consolidation takes flesh in the ritual of renunciation.

Okay, say you've succeeded in surviving the ten kilometers of frozen feet, jiggling flesh, jagged breath and complete silence. You've negotiated the 72 steps up to the temple grounds. You make your way toward the humongous bonfire at the southwest corner of the compound and suddenly you are no longer cold, because all at once it is extremely HOT. We're talking summertime flame, equatorial swelter, a pyre five meters high, twenty meters long, and seven meters across. A crackling heap consisting of, to quote U2, "all that you can't leave behind". Or, at least, that's the concept. Stick all the good stuff in a bag (a bag which at one time was a lightening rod for the spirits, but now represents aspects of your past life that you don't really want to part with, but which you are hoping to improve),then approach the pit, wind up and toss it far up into the flame. Destroy it to better it. You know, the old Japanese one-two punch: conjure the contradictions, then live with the irreconcilable differences. That seems to be one of the key ideas behind dontosai: consolidation at its most refined.

What do folks part with? Some people jettison the wreath ornament that ushered in the New Year; others send up a year's worth of calligraphy. I contemplated chucking my ReDotPop columns, but my laptop's a bit bulky to be lugged ten kilometers. Which is another way of saying: don't expect much in the way of improvement in this quarter over the next twelve months.

But for those who've made some sort of offering, that is, once atonement is complete, it's on to purification. And, oh how Zen this ritual is: performing the next act right there in the same spot without batting an eye or bothering to take a new breath or bite into a wafer or don a special garment. The one philosophy effortlessly yields to its opposite; the two ideas are contained in a singular act. Call it the consolidation of ritual.

The throng ringing the flame pinches as close to the incineration point as is physically tolerable, seeking fortification for the coming year in licks of billowing smoke. Kind of like Achilles being dipped in the sacred waters of the River Styx. Only these chemical agents are much more pungent. As the flames buffet the bundles and the resulting soot descends from high above, flakes settle on the hair, clothes and skin. More clothes than skin, it turns out, since most of those in attendance aren't foolish enough to come swathed in loincloths. They haven't been that foolish, in fact, for decades. Yeah, a few — the real hardcore cases — still come to the shrine in skimpy strips of white bedding, but most of us who inhabit the real world long ago eschewed cotton for wool, flimsy sheets for coats and jeans, jute slippers for boots. The overwhelming majority of attendees have come bundled in caps, mufflers, heavy socks and thick sweaters. Cutting corners, that is — as has become the signature of the Japanese middle generations — most dontosai-goers have arrived in utilitarian wear. Sure, the youngest of the female crew have taken pains to don the uniform of the day: micro-mini skirts and ultra-V-neck blouses that end short of the waist, thereby exposing as much cleavage, belly button and booty as socially permissible. Other than that crowd, though, there is little sign of forbearance in the fashion of the massing horde.

There's little time to contemplate all the semiotic scenarios played out in this frenzied festival. Physical fortification is only the first step. Spiritual benediction is still required. So, from the bonfire it's a collective push up a loooooong flight of stone stairs, past bustling stalls serving up chicken and squid on a stick, fried octopus, chocolate covered bananas, and cotton candy in plastic bags adorned with the images of the current female bubblegum idols (Morning Musume, Speed and Hamasaki Ayumi), past vendors hawking glistening icons for tossing on the fire, past tents with blow-heaters and picnic tables stocked with sake on a burner and beer in a tub. It's all so ReDotPop, this blending of commercial and ritual culture, old and new culinary tastes, young and old lifesyles.

Once the crowd delivers each participant to the threshold of the shrine, there are but a few remaining acts to engage in. There's the thick multi-colored jute to shake, the motion of which elicits a rattling protest from the huge brass bell suspended near the top. There's the silver coin (and occasionally paper note) to chuck into the large cantilevered wooden receptacle below. There's the hand claps — two which will deliver one to a moment of silent prayer — eyes pressed shut, foreheads bent toward steepled fingers, lips discernibly ambulating. And what does one pray for? Sound health, stellar exam results, a prosperous business year, a satisfying romance. Trivial things, in the main. Corporal things. Practical things. Very few utterances in the name of world peace or a better social milieu. Ah well, such is contemporary Japan. It's the way it is. Nothing more or less. Zen again.

And with that, with atonement and purification and prayers taken care of, the compacting is complete. Two years worth of human activity — one year completed, one to come — all reduced to twenty short minutes. Give or take.

Witnessing dontosai, then, we can recognize shrinkage. We can marvel at its facile ability to reduce, to channel, consolidate and clarify. But we can also see a kind of pregnant capacity. The thickness of tradition. The bloatedness of centuries of worship. The complexity of everyday practices co-mingled with the commercial and religious and popular. All very much a part of TODAY, dontosai is something more than just otherworldly spirits that under gird, guide and influence daily life. Like ake ome, dontosai is about social practice, popular culture, and continuity coupled with change.

Indeed, dontosai and ake ome are really one and the same: different dress cut from identical cloth. One rule-regarding, the other rule-breaking, sure, but both consolidations. And both about ritual. When we look at dontosai we can see that in Japan, ritual is often predicated on consolidation; but when we encounter phrases like ake ome, we can see that in the world of ReDotPop, consolidation is, itself, a widespread ritual.

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Music

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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