Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Looks Japanese, Sounds Balinese: Jade Warrior's "Floating World"

One of my favorite Spring Break indulgences is video gaming.  I am, at best, a casual gamer, and I am pretty picky about what I play, but when something clicks for me I do enjoy the diversion.  There is a bit of a catch, though – some games give me really bad motion sickness.  I have never figured out what it is about some games and not others that makes me feel all pukey, but this goes all the way back to the first “Doom” that I used to play on my pre-Windows PC.  Even worse, I usually can’t tell if a game is going to give me motion sickness until I have played it for a little while.  Once I notice it is happening, it is too late.  I usually have to go lie down until the worst of it subsides.  This happened to me yesterday as I was playing “TRON: Evolution,” and as the soundtrack to my recovery, I listened to another album whose dynamic range makes listening in my usually lo-fi environment difficult – Jade Warrior’s Floating World.

Floating World is a rather obscure release from the early 70s, and although it certainly has its aggressive moments, it is overall rather soothing (which I appreciated from my horizontal position on the couch).  Even by today’s standards, it is difficult to categorize, but in the early 70s it probably was even more so.   It seems to fall somewhere between progressive rock, new age, and world music, although these latter two categorizations were not even really in existence then in the same way that they are today.  

Floating World 

Obviously, from their album covers, Jade Warrior was taking advantage of the preconceived exotic notions about the East that the average Western listener may have had.  The cover for Floating World is clearly referencing traditional Japanese culture, although there are virtually no Japanese elements in their music.  Although Jade Warrior does employ quite a bit a flute, it sounds like a Western Boehm-style flute, not the more identifiably Japanese bamboo shakuhachi.  We as consumers are primarily visual, though, so it is difficult to shake this first impression, as this fan-made video shows:

This is not to say that Floating World is without Eastern musical influences.  There are several examples throughout the album in which express an interest in non-Western music, particularly that of Bali.  The more cacophonous moments on the album sound suspiciously reminiscent of gamelan styles.  The most obvious Balinese reference, however, is their appropriation of the Kecak, or Monkey Chant.  This clip is taken from the movie Baraka.

Kecak has its origins in pre-colonial Bali, but in its current form it is a localized creation of “authentic” music that capitalizes on the considerable Balinese tourist trade.  Even the Balinese understand the power of “exotic” Western preconceptions of their own culture.  Jade Warrior has a more chaotic take on the Monkey Chant, although they credit it as a “traditional” piece in the liner notes.  The following video is, again, fan-made and is the only embeddable version of the track that I could find.

This rendition is pretty far from the original Kecak, and even more so due to the rather jarring video, but the connection between the two seems obvious from a musical standpoint. In the 90s, there was a lot of discussion about “World Music” and the appropriation of traditional non-Western music into popular styles.  Artists such as Herbie Hancock, Deep Forest, and Paul Simon took a bit of a beating in academic circles for the manner in which they capitalized on African music.  Whether they were “inspired by” these styles or “stole” them is a point of contention.  Regardless, despite creating a cut-and-paste bricolage of Japanese visuals and Balinese sounds that referenced and reinforced mystical stereotypes of the East, Jade Warrior somehow escaped from this discussion unscathed.  Although I doubt that a single Balinese was ever paid a royalty, I also think that the band’s own obscurity probably guards them to an extent from too much scrutiny.

By the time I came to this conclusion, the video game-inspired motion sickness had become bearable enough to move around the house.  I may have to get some dramamine - or keep writing.

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