Saturday, May 6, 2017

Turning Up the Volume

If you've ever found yourself out in the woods, seeking some peace and quiet, you might have found that the outdoors is anything but. If you are lucky enough to escape the anthropogenic sounds of air conditioners and traffic, you will find the forest cacaphonous with birdsong all day and frogs and crickets at night.

Students in Estonia thought it would be a good idea to amplify this "peace and quiet" with enormous wooden megaphones. I must say I concur.

Friday, May 5, 2017

Mento: Where it all Began

The granddaddy of many later Jamaican styles, mento music had its beginnings in Jamaica as early as the 19th century. A uniquely Jamaican fusion of African and European musical traditions, the first recordings emerged in the 1920s when Caribbean jazz artists put their songs to wax cylinders. By the the 1950s, mento had reached a golden age and recordings began to appear on records.

These early disks reveal the diverity of sound among mento artists. An assortment of rhythms and styles, the diversity and creativity exhibited in the genre grew with the birth of Jamaica's recording industry. By the late 1950s, mento artists were incorperating pan Caribbean influences, as well as taking inspiration from American jazz.

With all this diversity, what gives mento its uniquely Jamaican sound? The classic mento sound has been described as "acoustic, informal, folksy and rural." Mento is still sometimes referred to as "country music" in Jamaica and many folk songs were recorded in this style. Instruments typical of mento surprise a lot of people. Mento musicians include banjo and acoustic guitar, as well as home-made instruments like the bamboo saxophone and rumba box.

The banjo is used in a variety of ways in mento music. It is strummed to provide rhythm, it is picked with precision (or not) to create solos, and it's even chimed like a steel drum. Its use in mento is quite distinct from the banjo in American musical traditions (as you might gather when you hear it, as it sounds nothing like Bluegrass).Unfortunately the use of the banjo didn't carry over into other, later types of Jamaican musical styles... Real shame.

The bamboo sax is exactly what you think it might be: a saxophone-type instrument made with a large piece of bamboo. It doesn't sound quite like a saxophone, but contributes a very unique, organic sound. You can learn more about bamboo saxophones and listen to a recording here.

The rumba box is also a mainstay of mento music. It is a large thumb piano built from from a wooden box (fancy, I know) A large circular sound hole is cut into the front, over which are secured a number of tuned metal tines. These are plucked to produce wonderful, belly-rumbling bass notes. The rumba box would later find a home is reggae music, too.

As the tourism industry developed in Jamaica, mento groups began to write songs specifically for visitors, like this one, and this little tune, which you may have heard before.

Gotta love grandpa music.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

A Caribbean Education

So, I live in the Caribbean.
There's a lot of great music here.
Which means there's a lot I need to learn about the great music here.

Specifically, I really need to brush up on my genres. There's a distinct difference between ska, mento, rock steady, reggae, dancehall and the R&B that comes out of these islands, and I'm definitely sensing a learning curve. Not to fear- I have a source.

I work with a 60 year old Rasta man who has an extensive collection of music and an encyclopedic knowledge of artists, albums, and the evolution of Jamaican musical styles. He's not a musician. He's a coffee farmer.

Yesterday, the area farmers had a social gathering. We cooked outside, traded ant-bite stories and played dominoes. All the while, this coffee farmer friend of mine, played DJ. As he lined up the tracks, pulling from his voluminous discography, I was able to begin to identify the differences in tempo, rhythm and general sound of these musical genres. It was neat to finally be able to piece them out, as I heard them side-by-side. That said, I've got a long way to go before I can comfortably say I have an understanding.

What better way to keep my thoughts straight, I thought, than to record by observances? And so, I've resolved to keep a record here- as time and internet connection allows- of my new musical experiences and all the questions that manifest alongside them. Is the categorization of "genre" helpful in this case? Is genre just reflective of musical style development over time? Are these new genres, then, only helpful insofar as placing the music in history? Is it same music played on different instruments? And what about all these covers and mixes?

Then there's the different culture around music in a Caribbean country, and the influence of that culture on the music itself. Does the knowledge that listeners will want to be able to break into song on the public bus influence your creative process? What about the mostly-concrete or outdoor listening acoustics? And perhaps most pertinent: what is the role of all these annoying DJs and their alter egos?

I sense an adventure.

Image: "Dance Hall Hobby" album cover, 2012, by Mr. Williamz

Friday, September 9, 2016

Here We Go Again

So, humans like patterns. We just can't get enough of some of them.
We latch onto certain patterns we like and subconsciously use them over and over- leading to the perennial problem of originality, copyright and ensuing legal action.

An intriguing article over on The Pattering highlights what the author has dubbed "The Millennial Whoop," or a "glorious obsession with the melodic alteration between the fifth and the third" note.   It's a musical pattern that's begun to characterize the generation's pop songs, and the piece conveniently provides links to the abundant examples.

Also curious is the application of thus very same pattern across cultures, and in the common practice of "baby talk" when adults to infants.

Check it out.


Saturday, August 13, 2016

Whale Song and Wavelets

 American engineer Mark Fischer recorded whale songs and dolphin calls. Then he transformed the recordings into visuals using a mathematical tool called "wavelets."

Here are his pretty pictures:

See more here:

Friday, August 12, 2016

Same Old Song: Humans Are Too Loud, and It's Ruining Everything

I know I've written about this before.  A few times. Quite a lot, actually.

But it bears repeating.

Humans make a lot of noise.

And it's messing things up for other animals.

The body of research suggesting that anthropogenic noise pollution has negative impacts on everything from birds, frogs, fish, insects, prairie dogs to even organisms without ears, is steadily mounting. Increasingly, human noise is being recognized as a form of habitat degradation, while at the same time we're uncovering the acoustic environment’s importance to wildlife — to behavior, communication and ultimately survival.

The fossil record reveals that animals developed ears before vocal chords. This is basically the paleontological equivalent of your grandmother reminding you that you have two ears and one mouth. Hearing is the universal alerting cue, an essential sense that’s never been seen to disappear in any species. From a zoological, evolutionary perspective, hearing is far more universal than vision, suggesting it's very important to a species' survival.

And that's where the human-generated cacophony becomes a problem. When animals' acoustic environments are altered, they must respond in order to function in a new sound environment. Animals respond to noise in many different ways, and scientists are just beginning to understand the ramifications. Some responses are behavioral and can be observed in changes in species' communication. Others show up in where animals choose to make their habitats, how successfully they fend off predators (or not), or their ability to hunt (or not) — or in subtler impacts on mating, reproductive success and physiological stress.

And, of course, as with all changes in an ecosystem, how stress is handled by one species affects all the other species in the system. Cascade affects can impact how and whether plant species are pollinated, their seeds dispersed, their populations kept in check by herbivores.

Birdsong decreases in complexity. And that's sad. That is sad, people.

Basically, human noise creates environmental stress, and animals either have to adapt, or die.
Which is a problem.

On the bright side, noise pollution is an easy problem to immediately clean up. Unlike other nasty pollutants with half-lives of millions of years, noise pollution can be made to disappear. Just like that. Really.

On the other hand, humans are still going to be all over the place, probably doing things that make noise. Noise cloaking technologies, sound-sensitive highway designs, even speed limits for boats (to protect poor whales' ears) can be developed and implemented to address this problem. But like all problems, the first step to recover is acknowledging that the problem exists.

It's the very ephemeral nature of sound, and the ease with which such a pollutant can be "cleaned up" that keeps it from being a priority when developing policy. Research on the impacts of anthropogenic noise on wildlife has only gained traction in the last 10 years. Until we can admit that the noise humans produce — from road traffic, airplanes, boats, fossil fuel extraction, mining, military activity, home air conditioning and other sources — is a widespread pollutant, we can't begin the process of cleaning it up.

*author jumps of soapbox and exits stage left*

Image by Chris Gash @

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Soundscapes in America's National Parks

Read this wonderful piece on the work of researchers recording the natural sounds of national parks all across the U.S. With more than 70 soundscapes so far, the scientists share that escaping anthropogenic sound is difficult (big surprise), and that, in some cases, the presence of human sound has had impacts on the ecosystem. In fact, certain wild sounds are becoming harder and harder to find, either due to human-made sound pollution itself, or the other impacts human development has had on the natural environment.

I'm reminded on John Cage's stance on conservation of natural sounds, and on the sonic opportunities we miss if we fail to save them. One of the researchers who has been recording soundscapes for the project agrees. "If we start to lose sounds of wilderness, we start to lose a piece of us," he said. "And that really hits at a place that we don't fully understand, but which is important."

Definitely worth the read:

Be sure to check out the great model of sound intensity across the US from the National Park Service.