Sunday, September 25, 2011

the tUnE yArDs "W H O K I L L:" I Am What I Am

If, to paraphrase a certain sailor, we are what we are, then we also become what we practice.  Even worse, although we do get good at the things we work at, we also get better at them in the way we work on them, which can sometimes be detrimental.  Confused yet?  Here's an example: when I was in high school and had my eye on a career in rock music, I figured that once I learned to play bass well enough, I could start working on my singing.  I got better at playing, and I got better at singing, but I rarely practiced singing and playing at the same time.  By the time I reached a certain proficiency at the bass, I had a hard time accepting the detrimental effects of splitting my attention between the instrument and the voice.

This mindset followed me into my college music studies.  I thought that if I just studied hard enough, one day my musical identity would magically spring forth from the head of Zeus as a matter of course: my birthright for all the work I had done.  Although I feel that I am a pretty good musician today, I am hardly the virtuoso that I envisioned myself to be when I was fifteen simply because in my academic studies, I waited too long to begin developing the practical aspect of performance.  Before I realized it, my path had already been carved out.    

With all this in mind, I admit that I am often envious of musicians that have built a musical concept simply by listening to things they like and imitating them without too much formal study.  Of current interest are the tUnE yArDs, a band that defies easy categorization and description.  No matter what you have playing right now, their quirky and innovative release W H O K I L L will probably contrast it in some way - unless you happen to be spinning some central African pop music.

The Afro-pop flavors of W H O K I L L might suggest that it was crafted by music students caught in the orbit of some collegiate ethnomusicology department.  However, Merrill Garbus, lead singer and conceptualist of the tUnE yArDs, has an academic background in the theater - specifically puppeteering!

Puppeteering?  What the heck!  I give up....

Like many, Garbus counts among her influences the “world music” of Paul Simon and Johnny Clegg.  Not so big a deal.  What infuses the tUnE yArDs’ Afro-pop overtones with authority is significant first-hand study experiences in Africa.  Coupled with her unusual performance background, Garbus developed into an aggressive challenge to the standard idea of the female pop/rock vocalist.  With the tUnE yArDs, She commands a devastating range of timbres, singing as sweetly as Prince in androgynous mode and as explosively as any wailing Shona mbira player. If W H O K I L L doesn’t make it into my top ten albums of the year, Garbus will get the prize for best vocal performance, hands down.

In the tUnE yArDs, Garbus and bassist Nate Brenner deconstruct the traditional “band” even further than the “bassless” groups that seem to be in ascendency. Considering the general importance of rhythmic percussion in their influences, being absent a dedicated “drummer” seems a bit curious.  Garbus, however, is one of many musicians like Tyondai Braxton and Imogen Heap who explore the potentials of current looping technology in interesting ways.  She deliberately structures her self-samples to capture the “Africanness” of interlocking ostinato patterns, sometimes sketching out the rippling vocal polyphony of central African Pygmy music.  In the studio version of Gangsta, these backgrounds are subtly distorted to even further emulate Colin Turnbull’s influential 1961 field recordings of the Mbuti pygmies.

And sure, it is morally troublesome that we, as white Westerners, continue to culturally colonize the third world by copying their music and selling it as our own.  On the other hand, the world has gotten a lot smaller since Paul Simon released GracelandThere is a difference between cultivating a musical concept out of personal experience and superficially pilfering the style of the “other” for the sake of adding something new and cool to our repertoire.  The tUnE yArDs’ music is who Garbus is: a commentary on her experiences as a cultural nomad.  Fortunately, she seems to be more concerned with making music than dodging academic issues.  Thank goodness.

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