Sunday, March 21, 2010

The Polyrhythmic Temptations of Erykah Badu

"What good do your words do when they can't understand you?"

The above chorus seemed to have rhetorical heft midway through Erykah Badu's recent concert at the Fox theater in Oakland. You see, she seemed about to escape the song form, en route to dissolving into a polyrhythmic ether of sorts. Just when lift-off appeared inevitable however, hip-hop brought her back to earth, then, after a short tribute to Michael Jackson, the soul returned. Standing in the audience nodding my head as I observed the proceedings, I started thinking about the relationship between artist and audience. What happens when your muse takes you off the beaten path? What concessions, if any, should one make on the one hand, and, on the other, how much should you, the audience, indulge the performer? Because it was a close run thing you know.

erykah badu finale

This polyrhythmic temptation, this polyphonic inclination, has taken up much of her last two albums. Indeed during the last two concerts I'd seen of her, there was no attempt made to coddle the audience. During the earlier one, in support of Worldwide Underground, she was in the throes of a liquid type of electronic soul music and had began drinking from the polyrhythmic fountain. During the last one - in 2008 in support of New Amerykah Part 1 - polyrhythms possessed her completely. To compound the musical dissonance further in this latter instance, she had made the mistake of following The Roots onstage - a frequently lethal decision on the best of days, and definitively so if the audience isn't ready to be a guinea pig for one's new directions. I enjoyed myself - to my ear it sounded much like a Funkadelic affair, a beautiful mess in short, but I'm not sure that everyone felt the same. For example, The Wife had some words later on - and she wasn't cooing. This past February's concert was fun and more audience friendly (the band was gearing up for the big push in support of her new album). She has pulled back, it would seem; one still wonders however.

Let it first be stated that I dig Erykah Badu, that on the strength of Baduizm and especially Mama's Gun, I will follow her to the musical ends of the earth and beyond. As we wait for the new album to be released in short order, the question most of her audience is asking is whether she will reign in the demons that she wears on her sleeves. Musically also, we're asking whether she'll submit to a sonic conception that is more recognizably song-like and whether melody and old fashioned soul singing will feature. The snarky will ask how long can a soul singer be post-song. The music these days is all riffs, beats, polyrhythms. Blame the sampler (that new accoutrement that has been accompanying her of late), blame Jay Electronica perhaps for a carnal and musical temptation. At times she seems consumed with sonic tics and mannerisms reminiscent of Michael Jackson after 1993. It's no doubt very exciting in the studio but rendered live, it can be challenging.

When someone like Giles Peterson hails her as the Nina Simone of our time, I think to myself, hey, I too am an aficionado of Sun-Ra and believe that the creator has a master plan, but which Nina Simone is he refering to? Does he mean the outsized musical talent or is he alluding to the late era eccentricity and mannered diva stylings? When Sly Stone is invoked, is it apropos her recent funk excursions or... well, let's leave the Sly comparison alone.

erykah badu vibe

Erykah Badu is self referential in the extreme and takes these kinds of cultural perceptions in her stride; she's all about multiple identities and musical schizophrenia. From Lowdown Loretta Brown to her other personas, she's a Kool Keith of sorts, presenting a hyperlinked conundrum asking you to stare at the performance while grooving with her. She demands attention and makes clear she will only do what she wants. It's the kind of creative freedom that few other artists have. It's also part of her mystique. In concert, she sheds skins, and is continually reincarnated. Costumes morph repeatedly as if to underlie that you can't pin her down, you shouldn't even try. To harken to the cautionary lyric that opened this note, I'll only add that there's a fine line between being elusive and being unapproachable. I was minded to call in Stevie Wonder and ask him to sing Have A Talk With God to her.

Let's not go too far and damn her with faint praise, Erykah Badu after all is a student of the great performers, and will jab and feint with the best of them. She remains very successful commercially even though the singles that are released now bear little relation to what you get when you buy the album. In the last album, Honey and The Healer, her tribute to J Dilla, were just about the only songs that moved the crowd and that were heard on the radio. Fair enough you may say, 'radio suckers never play me' is a refrain from Public Enemy on. She always makes sure to throw in a club banger, a unique video and moves units as the say. Who's to argue, right?

The earlier overt homages were to songsmiths: Roy Ayers, Chaka Khan, Midnight Star. These days however it appears that songs don't interest her, rather it is grooves, riffs, beats in short. She takes scraps of rhythm, drum and bass and forms sonic collages. The last two albums have been full of dense polyrhythms, loop backs, staccato effects, overlays and, crucially, very little concessions to the song form or indeed her audience.

Orchestre Poly-Rythmo de Cotonou The Vodoun Effect

I'm no musicologist but as an African I know all too well about polyrhythmic conceptions. The Congolese with their sebene (and the Ivoriens of late) have long prospered on these changes in their music but their inclinations are rather ecstatic. It's about the dance, the audience is constantly in mind, not so with our analog girl in a digital world. The closest analog to Erykah Badu's current game is the vodoun effect of T.P Orchestre Poly-Rhythmo de Cotonou. Think Benin. Think musical voodoo. It's the same aesthetic: funk underneath, musical mysticism, dense polyrhythms, polyphony and frequent changes. It's meant to be hypnotic at its best, I can only hope she reaches these heights as she continues to experiment. And if not, someone should hip her to Poly-Rhythmo.

A typical concert moment will have her holding up her hand, stopping the band just as they've built up a groove. "Hold up. Wait a minute." It's a tic if overused and you sometimes wonder if she can give it to you straight.

erykah badu wait a minute

When performing I Want You, it is almost a dissolve into liquid incorporality but then she pulls back and gets it together as if she has returned from a spell. There are commercial repercussions to how she handles these polyrhythmic temptations. Erykah Badu is by most measures the most popular soul singer of her generation (I'll skip her elder Sade in this comparison and ignore Amy Winehouse and Alicia Keys - call them pop). The soul crowd simply appreciates the voice and the songcraft. The hip hop crowd love her because she has genuine love for that aesthetic. She also happens to make rappers lose their minds such is her aural and sonic seduction. The bohemian are drawn to her mystical stick. All should be good if she holds it together.

erykah badu queen latifah jill scott 2005

I can recall fondly a joint tour with Jill Scott and Queen Latifah in 2005 when they appeared all-conquering in friendly competition. It is instructive to see how her contemporaries have dealt with fame. Jill crossed over into acting where her evident warmth is welcomed - her music hasn't been as strong since, but there are mutterings that she's hungry to get back on top - viz the forthcoming album and tour with Maxwell. Latifah? Well she's escaped music entirely - I was given the hard sell over Christmas about a Queen Latifah perfume.

I know I shouldn't, but I'm going to compare her to Amel Larrieux if only to contrast their live performances. Amel will joke that she is 'the queen of long endings' and I believe that this is an interesting way of dealing with having to sing the crowd favourites. She'll sing most of the song straight up and then go an excursion at the end and no one can tell where the song will wind up. This strategy allows the song to be different every time, depending on the mood of the band, the vibe of the crowd and so forth. Erykah's heart doesn't seem into her back catalog, she's experimental from the get go, the song doesn't interest her, it's more a mood that she's searching for and she'll add layers and rhythms. The result is that the audience doesn't get even the benefit of being moored to familiar ground.

erykah badu points

The new album, Return of the Ankh, is about to be released in few days. I suspect that the first singles won't sound anything like the rest of the album much in keeping with her modus operandi. Erykah Badu continues to be tempted by polyrhythms, this is not a temporary flirtation. Let's hope that she manages to navigate the tension between her muse's direction and the commercial imperative.

Erykah Badu at the Fox Theater Oakland, Friday 19 February 2010

Opening Act: Goapele

Goapele opened the show with a short set mostly of old favourites. She also introduced a slow and moody new blues: Tears on my pillow, capped off with a lovely organ solo. Oakland gave her love.

Here's my illicit footage of Goapele performing Closer.

Dave Chappelle showed up, drawing a great cheer, to introduce the main event.

dave chappelle

  • 20 feet tall (from the new album, psychadelia itself)
  • The Healer
  • Me
  • My People
  • On and On
  • & On
  • Appletree - done as an electronic boogie joint
  • Michael Jackson medley finishing with Off the Wall
  • I Want You
  • Didn't you know
  • Love of my life
  • Hip-hop interlude:
    • Friends by Whodini
    • Lodi dodi by Slick Rick and Doug E. Fresh
  • Large Professor interlude showcase for the dj
  • Bump it
  • Back in the Day (Puff)
  • Muddy Waters sounding joint
  • Other Side Of The Game
  • Soldier
  • Next Lifetime
  • Orange moon (snippet)
  • Tyrone
  • Bag Lady

Obligatory blurry photos: Erykah Badu Live

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Friday, March 12, 2010

Juicing the Books

My greatest acknowledged vice, according to two of the women most dear to me, is that I drink too much fruit juice. Rather than dwell on this marital and maternal complaint over what is surely a most benign addiction (compare the problems of keeping a fridge full of orange, pineapple and mango juice to alcoholism, the perils of nicotine, drugs, sex, or say dodging bill collectors due to gambling debts with loan sharks and their ilk), I thought that acknowledging it upfront would help explain how I worked myself into a state of righteous indignation over the following article. Well partially at least.

Tropicana Orange Juice Raising Prices

PepsiCo said it was shrinking its most popular size by about 8 percent, while maintaining its price, and raising the price on another size starting in May.

The 64-ounce container of orange juice will drop to 59 ounces. The suggested retail price will remain at $3.59. [snip]

Food and beverage makers react to changing ingredient costs by raising prices, changing products sizes or both. It is a way to protect their profit margins, and in the case of shrinking packages, offer less to shoppers so they can still buy products without having to pay more money at once.

Now far be it for me to complain about my suppliers raising prices. It's not a case of hell hath no fury like a juice lover squeezed. I do understand, after all, that the Florida winter damaged crops this year and that there's supply and demand and all that. Like Bubbles in The Wire, I accept what a working man has to do to make a living. It's all in the game right? No, what got to me was the disingenousness of the thing. That last line in the article is a prima facie lie, an attempt to disguise a price increase with weasel words. Well I started feeling like Bodie: the game is rigged.

You may recall me discoursing on The New Formula - the propensity of companies to tweak processes and often worsen their products in furtherance of the bottom line, a pathological hallmark of latter-day capitalism. I even had a case study showing how spikes in the prices of soybeans directly led to me losing out on my trusty Oil of Olay body wash as, first, the oil maleation process was removed and then, when there was nothing to be tweaked in the manufacturing process, soybeans were removed and the product was relaunched and relabeled "new and improved". Such is life right? Make lemonade when life gives you lemons.

But that was tinkering with process, now they're even messing with my lemonade. With commodities like juice, one would think that there is only so much you can do to process to wring out efficiencies. You can only pay the illegal immigrant labour force so little to harvest, even they need basic food and shelter after all. The gains from fertilizer are diminishing and runoff issues are quite literal. Even the politics of it are confusing; banana republics are expensive these days. Ecuador's going mildly 'socialist' to the dismay of old fashioned Texas businessmen. In all seriousness, the economics of modern day agriculture are fairly well studied and there's precious little slack.


No. It's the package shrinking that gets me. The Tropicana deception, as I called it, this juicing of the books is only the latest in an interesting trend of manufacturers increasing prices but retaining the same size packaging. Bottles or containers are made more convex, given revamped designs to fill the same physical dimensions, the spouts are shaped to pour out more than previously. Throughout the sticker price remains constant in order to fool the indiscriminate consumer into thinking that they are receiving the same product.

This orange deception is the result of literal bean counting in the spirit of airline companies in the 1990s that literally started saving peanuts (reducing the number of peanuts per package distributed in flight - and these days you're lucky to even get any complimentary snacks). We're being nickeled and dimed to death. The sole concession to honesty is in the small print of the labels on supermarket shelves - the per unit price that generations of consumers had to fight for. Regulations that are often meaningless in the marketplace.

Consider liquid detergent in this vein. There is a fine interplay of fluid dynamics between the design of the spouts of modern liquid detergent bottles and the viscosity of the liquid they contain. And this is an engineering and marketing decision, when you pour, sometimes things come out faster than you expect. At other times, it is rather that you have to be quite lithe of hand to steady the bottle as you try to stop pouring - call the result excess runoff if you will to keep with the fertilizer analogue. It's a minor irritation to be sure but the net effect is to make you use more of the product than you expected, a cynical nod towards planned obsolescence. And I've experimented you know, I follow these things closely - for a couple of years I even kept a collection of old bottles of Ivory, Palmolive, Tide and the like. Results? Well each brand tweaked their bottle design and consumer convenience was never in mind.

But let's broaden the perspective here on this mania for manipulation, this drive to extract surplus value. We see this in strategies adopted in modern agriculture - or should I rather say agribusiness: piling on the fertilizer, force feeding animals substances that should alarm even the most jaded, corn everywhere, herding in crowded cages, top-ups with antibiotics when expedient and so forth. No wonder modern farms or say your local meat rendering plant are desolate places. But this imperative has broad applicability. Airline travel is now seen in its true light - convenient perhaps, but an exercise in stress and physical discomfort. The space in economy class of ye regular airline is now so circumscribed as to be cattle tested. The logic indeed is that we're only cattle. "Buy something you stupid consumer" as that poster goes.

But I can understand the perverse incentives. I know that there is a push at the end of each quarter to close deals and I've felt it wherever I've worked no matter how low up the totem pole I might rest. You don't need studies of companies manipulating earnings to consistently beat expectations to know what all this means. When we read about Lehman Brothers doing the Repo 105 dance, it is much the same attitude towards truth in advertising at work. The current encomiums to "do more with less" have their counterpart as we have seen, "sell less for more" is Pepsi's slogan. As someone who owns stock I can understand the profit imperative, as a consumer however, I know it will come back to bite me and in this case, it will bite me in the form of a 59 ounce juice container lovingly designed to fill much the same shelf space as its 64 ounce predecessor.

It's all a shell game and there are now so few scales left to fall from my eyes. I am now eagerly awaiting the new juice containers in May to add to my collection of deceptive latter day capitalist artifacts - an archive of products engineered for the express purpose of juicing the books.

Soundtrack For This Note

Anyone have any further examples of these newfangled "advances" in packaging?

Disclaimer: I should note that of late I've been mostly buying a brand of juice that is often sourced from South America (typically Brazil) rather than juice from Florida or California - I wonder if I'll return to Tropicana or Minute Maid after this fiasco - can't they have the nerve to simply increase the price? And while digressing, I should also again note that I've started to see pineapple juice from Ghana making it to the supermarket shelves in these California climes. I do applaud the wonders of distribution in this modern age. It's the packaging and advertising that gets me down. Deception innit?

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Saturday, March 06, 2010

A Kenkey Bounty

Happiness is finding kenkey in Oakland - and not just something purporting to be kenkey, but good kenkey. You hadn't realized how much you'd been missing kenkey in your life so you beamed when you saw those corn husks wrapped around those broken pieces of your heart. Call it a restorative. And then to cap it off you notice some good puna yam at the door of the store, "From Ghana", she assures you. Hey it's Ghana's independence day and what better way to celebrate. Your basket was quickly filled with the basics: kenkey, yam, sardines, tilapia, plantains, okro, palm oil, fufu powder, and the old faithful, gari. You had come perilously close to disaster but had remembered that piece of advice that they announce as the plane takes off from Kotoka International Airport: "A Ghanaian immigrant should never run out of gari"; it's like losing your soul.

One of the problems with being an immigrant is getting food from home, a problem exacerbated especially if, like me, your culinary tastes were locked in place by age 8 or thereabouts. Physical displacement can be tolerable - a cosmopolitan disposition helps, but culinary dislocation goes beyond the realm of physical to a certain level of metaphysical angst. Like nostalgia, it's almost a social disease. As that wise man said, "home is where the kelewele is".

kenkey bounty

I see it as a quality of life issue. Moreover I have a very specific notion of (my culinary) home. I could eat plantain every day (and often do) - and have been known to base my housing decisions on its availability. So the first thing to investigate when in a new town is where the "African" shop is and if my staples can be obtained. My kelewele has to be styled like Auntie Becky's in North Labone - and I've been known to come to virtual fisticuffs with other exiled souls who have the nerve to argue that it was rather 'the woman from Labone junction' who made the best kelewele in town. Good grief. Well, less said on that, I shouldn't blame you if you haven't been exposed to that slice of heavenly taste.

Fruits: mangoes, bananas and pineapples preferably from Aburi and its environs - I am a failed pineapple farmer - and more on that later. Fruits however can be substituted. Banku and kenkey are irreplaceable. When it comes to kenkey, it's Ga kenkey that is essential. I could of course learn how to make kenkey but I always demur, safe in the knowledge that I'll never reach the heights of some of the good kenkey houses in Osu or Jamestown. I believe in division of labour. Sidenote: to avert the inevitable Ga versus Fante kenkey critiques, I'll admit that Fante kenkey off the road from Cape Coast is quite the thing. Tell Mama Akos Esi (or rather, her grand-daughter who tends to skip school to mind the stand) that I sent you.

mama akos esi fante kenkey

There's probably a longer feature to be written about the "African shop" abroad that caters groceries, phone cards and serves as community bulletin board to the diasporic cohort. My experience in France is perhaps coloured by the relative lack of authentic African food stuffs where we lived; the substitutes helped but weren't sufficient and French cuisine leaves me completely indifferent to this day. In London in the 80s it was first Charlie's in St John's Wood that catered to our tastes - although Charlie's English reserve and hefty prices were a bit hard to take. Then, as the immigration wave crested, we started to see competition as Africa immigrants opened their own shops - the couple of Afro-Carribbean shops in Cricklewood made my day. Later, Ghanaians and Nigerians took over many parts of South London so that Deptford on a Saturday could be well be Kaneshie market. In New York and New Jersey, there were of course the Korean shops that were early entrants but again Ghanaians and Nigerians have now caught up and compete in the culinary marketplace with groceries and now restaurants. Boston was touch and go - the Ghana shop that I frequented moved a number of times - and even burnt down at one point. Still, I was never too far from plantain, yam, gari and kenkey. And the world was good. Slowly and surely the African culinary colonization is taking place and these days many supermarkets cater to our diaspora. Would that this trend continue.

Downtown Oakland has the Lucky Oriental Mart which, despite its title, is comprehensive in its purveyance of all manner of African and Carribean food. God bless the Filipino owners whose knowledge of our plants and foods is a thing to behold. The only gap in their coverage had been a regular supply of decent kenkey - now resolved. I do hope these soul sisters make it to the continent one day; on this Independence day, they captured my heart with a few balls of kenkey. A small thing perhaps, but I am duly sated. From here on, I only have a few fantasies to fulfill: some chichinga or grilled Guinea fowl - well a man can dream can't he? Everyone needs a taste of Africa.

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