Thursday, January 04, 2018

Life is tough on the wrong side of the digital tracks

In 2008 my compulsive exploration of music's overgrown paths led me to present the first and almost certainly the only radio broadcast of a Gnawa trance ritual. This project was a collaboration with KamarStudios in Marrakech which had recorded and released commercially the two hour long ‘black’ section of the twelve hour Nights of the Seven Colours lila - trance ritual - with which the Gnawa celebrate the creation of the universe. My overnight broadcast of the black lila was prefaced by an ambient session from two young Marrakechi DJs which mixed electronic trance and more traditional sounds, a session also released as part of the Black Album package.

The Gnawa practice a folk Islam containing strong elements of animism and consider themselves descendants of Sidi Bilal, who was the first black person to convert to Islam, a companion of the Prophet and the first muezzin in Islam. The Gnawa identify with Bilal because of his colour, because he was a slave and for his conversion to Islam. Gnawa music and the associated power of trance has become something of an obsession for me; so I have kept in touch with Philippe Lauro-Baranès at KamarStudios, and my recent visit to Morocco gave me the opportunity to catch up with him. Kamar is located in a warren of back alleys in the Kennara neighbourhood of Marrakech close to the tourist honey pot of Jemaa el-Fnaa. Philippe and his four partners founded KamarStudios in 1999 and the Gnawa musicians were recorded in the acoustically blessed courtyard outside their studio - see photo below.

That is Philippe Lauro-Baranès in my header photo. He was born in Paris but has lived and worked in Marrakech for 35 years. The recording of the Gnawa lila is his passion and the raison d'être for KamarStudios. The lila is a voyage across the ocean of trance possession and each spirit invoked represents a different port of call on this journey through the night. Between 2000 and 2005 Kamar recorded the complete Nights of the Seven Colours ritual during the hours of darkness over 38 sessions, and all 12 hours of the lila exist as 'clean' masters. As part of the project the first-ever complete translation of the lila was commissioned and included as a text disc in the Black Album package. (The translation of the 'red' segment of the ritual dedicated to Baba Hammu, the spirit of blood, is incomplete as the Gnawa were unable to provide a translatable text for this most arcane and sanguinary rite.)

Although the complete Seven Colours ritual was recorded only the 'black' segment dedicated to the supernatural sons of the forest has been released. This is because Philippe has struggled without success to make the project commercially viable. In fact the financial burden of the Black Album has weighed heavily on Kamar ever since its release in 2006. It is tempting to simply dismiss this financial failure as a case of too much enthusiasm being focused on a niche market, and there is some truth in that diagnosis. But when you drill down deep into the story of the Black Album there are universal truths that apply across all music genres and markets.

It may be niche music, but Gnawa is a substantial niche. It resonates with the current preoccupations with emancipation from slavery and suppression of musicians of colour. Over the past decade Gnawa fusion projects have proliferated and the annual Gnawa music festival in Essaouira is now a major fixture in the world music calendar. The twelve hours of authentic Gnawa music in the Kamar vault is a unique and valuable document in the same league as Paul Bowles' legendary field recordings of Moroccan music. Yet Kamar has been unable to achieve commercial traction with the 2 hour black lila, yet alone with the complete ritual.

Philippe is very pessimistic about the state of the music market. He laments the decimation by digital technologies of the vital infrastructure that in the past supported independent projects such as the Black Album. Prior to the demise of bricks and mortar record stores there was high street display space available and professional merchandisers using that space to maximum effect. When it was first released 1000 copies of the Black Album were sold in just three weeks in the Virgin Superstore in the Champs-Elysées, Paris where it went on sale there through the intervention of a personal contact. But attempts to secure further physical distribution failed because the major distributors are only interested in labels with a range of titles, and Kamar currently only has one. So the Black Album CD set is now out of print; however it is available as a download or stream from iTunes, CD Baby and Spotify*.

Today the Black Album is just one of more than 3 million albums on the iTunes database. So the onus is on Philippe to promote it, and the main promotional vehicle today is social media. Philippe has no appetite for playing the click bait game, stating quite bluntly that "Artists cannot create and promote". Significantly he believes the Black Album would have achieved more success in the pre-digital market where passion and innovation were not subservient to technology, hype and scale. He laments the populism now prevailing in the creative industries, a populism which means the work of KamarStudios is dismissed by today's tastemakers as "too sophisticated, too intellectual and too deep". Compounding these problems is the pittance paid in royalties by the streaming services. As a result many independent artsists are forced to turn to crowdfunding, but others view this as a form of intellectual prostitution.

When asked whether the internet has helped, Philippe has no hesitation in answering with an emphatic "No!" He is not alone in his pessimism. Cretan music legend Ross Daly makes all but his latest release permanently available for free online because he is "really really fed up with the financial side of the recording industry", while rock superstar Neil Young recently announced he was offering his entire music archive free online in hi-res formats for a limited period. Neil Young's pre-occupation with sound quality resonates with Philippe Lauro-Baranè, who believes that the loss of the trance-inducing infrasound - low frequency content - of the Black Album in MP3 format robs the music of its power and purpose. Moreover Philippe believes that Kamar has been the victim of intellectual property theft, alleging that a major music festival has used his laboriously produced translations without permission.

Philippe sees major and overlooked downsides in the hidden economic and political agendas controlling the digital music industry. KamarStudios and its peers are outliers, and he believes that the online gatekeepers are out to kill everyone at the margins. Despite his trenchant views Philippe is most definitely not a luddite: he works in the digital domain using Roland workstations and freely acknowledges the huge benefits of other digital tools such as Emagic's Logic Audio Platinum. In addition to the Black Album project Kamar has created a number of acclaimed transcultural projects using cutting-edge technologies. Just one example is In Between Two Worlds or The Shadow of the Burnt Books, which was created by Kamar for the Marrakech Biennale and evokes the medieval Andalusian polymath and teacher of Islamic jurisprudence Ibn Rushd [Averroes] (1126–1198).

Ibn Rushd was the chief judge of Cordoba, but struggled against the sectarian violence which threatened the pluralism and tolerance of Al-Andalus. He fell out of favour, his works were burned and he was banished to Marrakech where he died. Judged to be a heretic, his ashes were returned to Cordoba. In Between Two Worlds or The Shadow of the Burnt Books draws parallels between the intolerance of the 12th century and our present time using digitised images of the burnt books in Mosul library, of Baghdad's street of booksellers Al Mutannabi destroyed by a suicide bomb, and the Buddhas of Bamiyan destroyed by the Taliban. Sound artist Leif.e.Boman appropriated the geological technique of atomic emissions spectroscopy to transform the faint waves of light in Ibn Rushd’s tomb into audio frequencies. These frequencies were then transformed in the digital domain into music by Khalid Içame and Abderrazak Akhoullil of the Kamar team. Listen to an extended sample and read more via this link.

In economics the tragedy of the commons describes how when all members of an interest-based community try to reap the greatest individual benefit from a shared resource, one result can be the degradation of that shared resource through their collective action. Today the music industry is in denial about the tragedy of the creative commons triggered by new technologies such as streaming. The Black Album's sub-title is 'Servants of the invisible' because the the Gnawa believe that by representing the gods in music and dance the invisible is made visible. The time I spent with Philippe Lauro-Baranès in Marrakech made very visible the problems that independent artists and producers face in today's digital marketplace. No we cannot turn the clock back, and yes, digital technologies have delivered huge benefits. But there is still a very blinkered view of the not insignificant downsides associated with the digital reshaping of music supply. The famous Jemaa el-Fnaa square in Marrakech, which is just a stone's throw from KamarStudios, has enjoyed official recognition since 1922 as part of Morocco's artistic heritage and today is protected by UNESCO as part of the intangible cultural heritage of humanity. Creative mavericks like Philippe Lauro-Baranès are also part of our intangible cultural heritage, and it is a scandal that in the brave new digital age of plenitude - Facebook profits for one quarter $4.7 billion - mavericks like him are under threat.

* Any parties genuinely interested in collaborating with KamarStudios to give their Gnawa project the distribution it deserves and wishing to contact Philippe Lauro-Baranès can do so by leaving a comment below expressing interest with contact details. The comment will be picked up prior to moderation, treated in confidence and not published, but will be forwarded to Philippe.

Resources consulted include The Gnawa and Mohamed Tabal by Georges Lapassade. Any copyrighted material is included as "fair use" for critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Also on Facebook and Twitter.


Pliable said...

Two comments on Facebook deserve to be repeated here:

Joshua Cheek - 'Once again, Bob Shingleton has written an article of tremendous importance for anyone seriously engaged with the art of music, it's preservation and survival. There's a lot to unpack here: the economics of the music "business", the domination of the digital commons into every aspect of our lives, and the very real loss that occurs when everything is "accessible."

While I could never in my wildest dream claim a fraction of Philippe Lauro-Baranès' genius, I have fought in the trenches for the cause of Korean and Chinese music and felt a wince of pain when I read the words "... too much enthusiasm being focused on a niche market." I MADE the teeshirts for THAT tour!

The worst part is that I have no idea of where do we go from here. I'm sick and tired of being sick and tired!'

Brian Brandt '... this is a sad but very true story, indicative of any fringe music today. I sympathize with Lauro-Baranès, who probably like me and Mode Records, is not really interested in "profit." But we have to live and it costs money to make recordings — good recordings — and you have to have proper income to keep that going. Will we have to crowd-source virtually everything we want to release now? Again I agree with Lauro-Baranès, that it is difficult to both create these things and to find the time (and talent?) to have to raise money to do the same.
In the early days of CDs, you could sell 1,000 of almost anything in 1 year, even more by a well know composer. Today, you may not even sell 1,000 of a known composer on CD in several years! Never mind works of not well known or young composers. True, you may sell hundreds of the same by track per month via streaming — and that is amazing! — but that may only earn a few dollars at best. What results is a strangulation of the flow of what can be issued because of lack of funds.'

Pliable said...

And Allan J. Cronin comments on Facebook: 'With all the monies being generated by tech things in the bay area I am constantly frustrated by the fact that there has been very little investment in the arts. Granted there is some support for some of the arts but the cutting edge and the unfamiliar get no attention. We are looking at people with lots of money but very little cultural literacy. If we could increase that cultural literacy, the awareness of new and challenging art and music there might be some hope for funding. But I think we are looking at a generation raised on some of the tackiest mainstream culture and no education in classic literature, music or art. I mean, Hello Kitty can only take you so far and it won't last.'