Dub genealogies

[Thoughts on listening to Rider Shafique’s I-Dentity]

Sometimes you find yourself scrabbling around for the right words to express something that’s been bubbling away in your mind for a while, only to find that someone else has said exactly what you wanted to say, using half the words, and far better ones.

I’ve had this unfinished piece of writing lying dormant in my ‘half-baked ideas’ folder for months. It was supposed to be a reflection on identity, on the concept of ‘race’ and how we refuse to let it go, on the experience of being a mixed-race person and having multiple narratives written onto my skin, on the ridiculousness of the term ‘mixed-race’ and and on how answering the questioned ‘where are you from?’ always ends with a conversation rather than a one-word answer.

It was a fumbled attempt to write about thoughts and feelings that have swirled around inside of me for most of my adult life, thoughts which I had always assumed would dissipate as I got older. But as 2016 has shown, the forces of xenophobia, nationalism and white supremacy are constantly being re-kindled, and we seem collectively to be intent on recycling ancient prejudices, falling back into nasty tribal allegiances, peering at each other with mistrust and even hatred.

Those are some of the sentiments that come through on Rider Shafique’s I-Dentity, recently released on the new record label by the Young Echo collective.

It’s a mournful track, and feels as though Shafique is trying to evict feelings that have long been bugging him, giving voice to a deep-seated frustration. It’s a frustration built on continually trying to untangle all the accumulated injustices of the past 500 years: hierarchies, classifications, categories that should be dead and buried but still shape our world and how we move through it.

The track also sits within a tradition: you could trace its genealogy to the dub poetry of Linton Kwesi Johnson, but its more recent analogues are with the dread-infused growlings of The Spaceape, and the dub commentaries of King Midas Sounds‘ Roger Robinson. It’s a tradition of trying to destabilize and unravel systems of meaning that have kept us apart and oppressed. It’s also a tradition of transcendence, of trying to nullify Babylon’s notions, and through using the right frequencies, reaching a deeper level of understanding.

 

Lost in the Circuits

My mind is awash with paranoia. I’m sleeping poorly, my body riddled with tension. Too much vacant time, filled up sat in front of a screen.

I’ve been in a consistently dystopian headspace over the last month or so. Trump and Brexit were the precursors, but the dread seeps into the microlevel: underemployment gnaws at me; bad vibrations in my living situation becoming intolerable.

I take long walks along the river and into the woods to try and escape. There are moments of bleak beauty as the mist draws in, pre-sunset, though crows perching on top of trees seem like harbingers of some ominous future.

My room is filled with stacks of books I’ve borrowed. On the floor lies an intimidating tome about The Singularity – the idea that technology will eventually supersede the limits of the human body, and our own biologically-rooted consciousness. But I can’t bring myself to read more than a few pages.

Meanwhile, the Snoopers Charter becomes law in the UK, but no one seems too fussed. Why worry about the government spying on you when it already fills like we’re living in one long looping Hour of Chaos? Atrocities I can’t begin to comprehend are happening in Syria, but it’s Christmas time here so let’s go and do some shopping.

I realise I’ve been slipping into a disembodied state: permanently wired, locked into an information stream that brings only bad news. I feel the need, again, to step away. I’m craving open space, mountains, landscapes. Anything to break with the monotony of the flickering screen, the grey terraces outside my window, and the rattling of thoughts inside my skull.

I keep thinking back to the man I met in the woods: purposely divorcing himself from civilisation, to scrape a life from the moss, the trees, the rocks. I feel like doing the same: finding some way to step back into the physical world, breaking away from being a spirit lost in the circuits.

Elsewhere

Most of my adult life I’ve been haunted by a craving to be Elsewhere. Somewhere else. Somewhere other than here.

The constant stomach-churn of restlessness, wanderlust, dissatisfaction and disillusionment has led me to have 20 or more addresses over the past decade. Many times, I’ve upped sticks, quit jobs and fled, obeying inner commands to seek answers on the road.

A Sufi friend once told me that the self is hell. In seeking Elsewhere I’ve been seeking to escape myself – the inner conflicts and whirring thoughts that bedevil my consciousness.

But in spending weeks, sometimes months, in foreign lands, I’m often confronted with myself more violently then when I was at home (and where is that?).

Not feeling at home in myself, I keep trying to run. All the while knowing I’m going in the wrong direction.

I’ve been looking at the map upside down. Where I need to go is inward. What I need to learn is how to be, how to exist in the present, how to feel alright in myself, and how to remember that the self is an illusion.

Dirt and Slime

[thoughts inspired by listening to an Ital Tek mix on a Friday morning]

 

 

We’re afraid of being human. That’s why we lose ourselves in screens.

Secretly, we’re willing ourselves to be machines: we want to become beings of information, our consciousness transplanted onto microprocessors, our organs replaced by motherboards.

We want to be machines because we’re terrified of the fact that we used to be animals. Animals that fuck each other in the woods and kill each other for food.

If we become machines, we no longer have to confront the fact of death; we won’t rot and be forgotten. Once we start to fail, we’ll just reinstall our operating system.

We don’t want to be humans because to be a human means to have once crawled out of the dirt and the slime. We want to forget that we used to have coyotes and sealions as our kin.

We don’t want to be humans.

We want to be machines so that we can cast off our bodies and exit this planet.

Sound has no Form

[perspectives on sound as a healing technology]

Part 1: Buddhism

It’s been an intense few months. Despite escaping the dread of winter and landing a new job, mental fluctuations, heartaches and pervasive anxiety have all been taking their toll, while the part-time nature of my work means economic precarity is a constant. As a result, I’ve been exploring practices to help ground myself.

I’ve tried to practice meditation in some form for a number of years now, first attending guided sessions at a Buddhist centre in North London, in between shifts as a project worker in homeless hostels. It’s something I’ve dipped in and out of, and have tended to return to in moments of difficulty.

Recently, I’ve become increasingly curious about the idea of using sound as a vehicle for meditation. It seemed like a natural continuation of things I’ve been thinking about, especially given the fact that I’ve always found music and writing to be meditative in and of themselves. Both are ways of eliciting altered states, in which the ruminating and over-analytical aspects of my mind subside, and it becomes easier to access states of deep concentration, focus and flow.

That’s what led me to attend a couple of sound meditation sessions, using singing bowls, led by a former Tibetan Buddhist monk now residing in Bristol.

One of the things I remember best from the first session I went to was the idea of ‘showering the mind’: the idea that we should be taking the time to become aware of what is happening within us – psychologically and emotionally – in the same way that we generally take the time to clean our physical bodies every day.

The other thing I took a way was the idea that the sound has no form. Sound is powerful, transformative even, but it is also transient. This is reflected in the practice of meditation, which is a tool for being able to observe the passing of our thoughts, without judgement and without entering into dialogue with them. The idea of sound as a healing technology is central to the practices of both Buddhism and Hinduism, especially in the form of chanting mantras, but also in the use of singing bowls, which are tuned to different frequencies, designed to affect the body in different ways and create different emotional responses.

In practice, while meditating to the sound of the bowls, I found that my mind was sometimes caught between trying to focus on my own breath, as it is usually is during meditation, and on the timbre of the sound I was hearing. Nonetheless, the experience of focusing on one tone at a time opened up a fresh space in my head, less clouded by thoughts and the cycle of constant internal chatter.

Friction

 [tangents on cities / multiple realities]

1.

I’ve been doing my bit recently to help keep public libraries open by stocking up on novels at Bristol Central Library. One of the books I finished in the past few weeks was China Miéville’s The City and The City.

A detective story set in a fictional central European country, the story follows inspector Tyador Borlú of the Extreme Crime Squad, who is investigating the murder of a young woman in his home city of Besźel. As the case becomes more complicated, he has to travel to the twin city of Ul Qoma, unmasking a political conspiracy in the process.

The thing with Besźel / Ul Qoma is that the cities actually inhabit the same physical space, but are completely different social, cultural and political entities. The citizens of each city have learned to ‘unsee’ each other, sometimes having to step round each other in ‘crosshatched’ areas (where one house or street is in Besźel, the other in Ul Qoma). Any interaction between denizens of the two cities is strictly forbidden and if a resident of one crosses into the other, they are dealt with severely by a shadowy force known as Breach.

As a metaphor, it’s hard to visualise. But it somehow manages to communicate the ways multiple realities can exist side by side in cities. It could be used as a way to think about urban segregation; the way that homeless people are made ‘invisible’, or as a way to understand the increasingly polarised mega-cities of the global south – Mumbai, Rio or Johannesburg, as well as the highly stratified cities of the North – London, New York or Paris.

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2.

I’ve been thinking a lot about cities recently: the social tensions and contradictions that define them, the overlapping sets of realities rubbing uneasily against each other. It’s these tensions that lead to higher rates of mental illness – depression, anxiety and a host of other disorders brought on by the pressures of urban life. Yet, cities are also refuges, sites where misfits and outsiders can congregate, places for people of various diasporas to gather, reformulate and forge new identities. The ethnic and cultural diversity of big cities make them generally more interesting places to be. And in some ways, although few like to admit it, these very same tensions can fuel creativity.

One of my favourite producers, Kevin Martin aka The Bug, has spoken about how his music is a conduit for chaos and feelings of anxiety and dread. He describes needing what he calls the ‘friction’ of the inner city to do what he does, and feels that the hyper-gentrification of London is leading to cultural flatness and dullness – a threat to underground music culture in the form of a “pacification in the middle mass”.

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3.

Bristol is full of its own tensions and contradictions, social, racial and economic. Since moving here I’ve worked in a couple of different environments. I hard a short-term contract working in Clifton, the affluent end of the city that someone once described to me as ‘the slave-masters quarter’. I then spent a year working in Barton Hill, one of the more deprived parts of town, down the road from where I live and only a mile or so from the city centre.

I’ve recently started a part-time job in an organisation based in Stokes Croft. I lived close by, in St Paul’s, when I first moved here, and I know the area well. It says a lot about Bristol – creative, independent-minded, anarchic. But it’s also one of the areas where the city’s social tensions are most acute: rapidly gentrifying yet also home to a large homeless community and a large drug economy, where people beg for change outside trendy cafes.

I find myself passing through this two days a week, working for an organisation full of lovely, progressive, politically-conscious people. But despite being literally on the doorstep of one of the city’s most ethnically diverse neighbourhoods, the office where I work is overwhelmingly white. I sometimes struggle with the contradictions of such a space and wonder whether, despite all good intentions, it is part of the same dynamic that risks turning the area into the type of nullifying “yuppie paradise” that Kevin Martin describes.

My mind is forever warring with itself: trying to understand the underlying reality around me without giving into a kind of nihilistic dread, an admission that, as Martin puts it “life is just one big kaleidoscopic mess. It’s too fucked up to really understand”.

Women of electronic music: Delia Derbyshire

I’ve written about this topic before, and it is one that I will keep returning to. Over the past year, as part of my explorations of the Bristol music scene, I have been to a lot of gigs and club nights. One thing that is impossible to ignore is the under-representation of women, particularly when it comes to audiences for and producers of electronic music. While it isn’t always the case, I have been to nights and stood amongst crowds that have been ninety per cent male. This trend is also reflected in wider narratives about electronic music and its origins, in which the contributions of women are often forgotten or marginalised.

This is not going unnoticed in Bristol. I’ve previously mentioned Saffron Records, who are doing much to promote the work of young female musicians in the city. Similarly, The World is Listening, a Bristol-based podcast, celebrates the contributions of women in the world of electronic music production. Taking a more overtly political stance on the issue, and the lack of creative spaces run by women, is the LaDIYfest collective, which organised a two-day festival last October in Bristol and has an objective to ‘celebrate the achievements of self-identifying women and oppressed genders in the arts’.

It was LaDIYfest who organised the showing of Kara Blake’s 2009 documentary The Delian Mode at Bristol’s Hydra bookshop last night. The 25-minute film focuses on the work of Delia Derbyshire, the composer of the Doctor Who theme tune, and a pioneer in electronic music who is slowly becoming recognised as a major influence on contemporary producers and musicians. The film highlights how her childhood in Coventry, and particularly, her experiences of the bombing of the city, were pivotal in her developing a fascination with sound theory. In one scene, she talks about hearing air-raid sirens, and later, following her family’s removal to her parent’s home town of Preston, the sounds of ‘clogs on cobblestones’ as a massive influence on her.

She went on to gain a Maths degree from Cambridge, an experience which she described as ‘quite something for a working class girl in the fifties, when only one in ten [students] were female’. From 1962 to 1973, she worked with the BBC’s Radiophonic Workshop in Maida Vale, a studio set up to create sound effects and music for radio and TV programmes. She became a talented producer of musique concrète – the practice of using recorded sounds, often from field recordings or everyday objects, and manipulating these to create compositions. Her tools were primarily analogue tape reels, and the pain-staking work of splicing tape befitted her eccentric and obsessive character. Her talents as a producer were counter-balanced by depressive tendencies and a life-long dependency on alcohol, which would eventually lead to her death from renal failure  in 2001 at the age of 64.

In many ways, the techniques that Derbyshire was using prefigured the possibilities that would later come with synthesizers (which she disapproved of due to their ‘inorganic’ approach to sound creation) and with digital audio work stations. She influenced a generation of musicians who grew up in the 60s and 70s, listening to the radio and watching the TV programmes that her studio produced.