Sunday, December 09, 2012

Has new technology made it cool to 'photoshop’ reality?


Increased speed to market and decreased production costs are just some of the benefits of new technology. There is no doubt that the digital manipulation of images, sound and text has revolutionised the creative process, while web-based communication has made push-button publishing a reality in the form of social media. But the technology driven elimination of traditional checks and balances also brings risks, and the power and speed of liberating technology appears to have been a contributory factor in the recent BBC Newsnight fiasco and the subsequent Twitter scandal. Clearly these two high profile examples raise serious concerns about the dangers of the undisciplined use of liberating technologies. But a recent personal experience raises concerns that the transformative power of new technologies may also be creating a ‘fast and loose’ mindset that is encouraging the creative community to 'photoshop’ reality. Let me explain…

A few weeks back I came across the newly released CD Moroccan Gypsies seen above in my local specialist record store. Regular readers will know of my interest in the music and culture of Morocco, and recordings of the Moroccan Gypsy community – Dom - are very rare. So I did not hesitate to buy the disc, which is released by ARC Music whose website states “Established in 1976, we are the original world music label”. But the problem is that, in my opinion, the music on the CD is not by Moroccan Gypsies.

The problem starts with the CD's sleeve notes, which are credited to Diz Heller of ARC Music. The first two paragraphs of the very professionally presented notes give a brief background to the Gypsy and Dom communities, and correctly state that they originated from India. Paragraph three starts by saying “Various names that were used to designate Gypsy people in the Middle East include Barake, Nawar …” - an explanation which, incidentally, is remarkably similar to one on the webpage of the Dom Research Center. The note then continues “They [i.e. the Moroccan Gypsies] split up into many groups such as Issawa, Gnawa…Jajouka”. Which is factually wrong: the Issawa, Gnawa and Jajouka are not Gypsies, they are esoteric sects. And not only is it wrong to call them Gypsies, but they are also not the result of a common lineage that “split up into many groups”. In fact their lineage is ethnically and geographically very diverse - the Issawa are a brotherhood of predominately Moroccan Berbers from Mekn√®s, the Gnawa originate from black sub-Saharan Africa, while the Jajouka of the Rif region come from an Arab lineage. These are errors that should have been spotted by anyone with some knowledge of Moroccan culture, or by a diligent editor.

Unfortunately, the errors are not confined to the sleeve notes, and although the the music on the CD is performed by Moroccan musicians, they are not, in my view, “Moroccan Gypsies”. As is correctly identified elsewhere in the disc documentation, the Groupe Sidi Mimoun is from the Gnawa tradition, and the Ben Souda group from the Issawa tradition. In fact the CD captures quite acceptable performances of the much more common music of the Gnawa and Issawa brotherhoods, and not music from Moroccan Gypsies. The Gnawa could be described as "itinerant musicians" - as they are on the liner copy; but ethnically, culturally and geographically they are not Gypsies. And neither are the Issawa - who are not even itinerant. So, when you buy this CD of Moroccan Gypsies, I do not believe you are getting what it says on the tin. Which is worrying, as this release is likely to find its way into public and college libraries, where - like Wikipedia - it will become fact.

When I contacted ARC with my concerns their customer services department reported they had “forwarded your email to the production department for comment” and offered, as a goodwill gesture, an alternative CD from their catalogue, an offer I did not take up. When I had heard nothing more after ten days I contacted them again asking for clarification and pointing out I would be writing about the disc. In response I was told the following on Nov. 14, since when I have heard nothing further:

The album was produced by one of our long standing musicians, Chalf Hassan, who is native Moroccan and a musician since childhood. He approached us with the idea of releasing an album of Moroccan Gypsy music. He met and recorded the bands and the texts were provided by him. As an ARC artist for many years in extremely good standing with the company, we accepted his expertise on the matter. We have written to him asking him to clarify his texts and position. If a correction is required in future reprints we will take care of this.
So far I have received no information from ARC Music that causes me too change my view that the CD is not a recording of Moroccan Gypsies and that there are errors in the sleeve notes. However if it turns out I am wrong, I will of course update this post. But if indeed the Moroccan Gypsies have gone missing, what is the reason? Were errors innocently allowed to slip through the production process because of a lack of checks and balances? Or was there another reason for the errors? Is Google replacing scholarship? Has new technology made it cool to ‘photoshop’ reality? Watch this space… And if this lengthy path about obscure Moroccan brotherhoods seems rather arcane, remember there have been much higher profile and more dramatic examples of ‘photoshopping’ reality. Among them are the Argo commercial disc that the BBC presented as their own proprietary recording, and most famously, the Joyce Hatto counterfeits.

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2 comments:

P. M. Doolan said...

So neither the music nor the musicians are Gypsy?
Excellent article - point well made. The lack of checks and balances is possibly leading us into an era of great confusion and misinformation.

Philip Amos said...

I don't normally do this, Bob, but I do believe you have an extra 'not' in the penultimate sentence of paragraph four. In my many years as an academic, I edited many mss and I came to think that 'not' errors are the most disastrous of all.

But that is indeed a trifle, for this is one of your finest posts, immensely thought-provoking in its thesis and particularly interesting to me because of my own interest in gypsy music. As an avocation, I used to produce Flamenco performances and for them write essays and programme notes. For a performance with the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, their note writer asked to use my own essays and produced such an incomprehensible hash it embarrasses me still. I think it was my words re the connection between Flamenco and German Idealist philosophy that did her in. Mind you, she wrote in another piece that Beethoven composed 111 piano sonatas. (--:

You make a point that is even more true re books today -- all serious printed matter requires expert editors, but such are now very rare indeed. I shall contemplate your thesis and most certainly pursue the issues re this particular disc. I look forward to your next post on this subject. My thanks.