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SIDESTEPPER AND THE CREOLIZATION OF AFRICAN MUSIC

 

 

By Kalamu ya Salaam of Kalamu.com

 

 

Saturday/Sunday, October 11-12, 2008.

 


Sidestepper is an Afro-Colombian aggregation with a British DJ cum producer.  The core members are: Richard Blair – bass and beats; Ivan Benavides – guitar and vocals; Janio Coronado – vocals; Kike Egurrola – drums; Erika Munoz – vocals; Gloria Martinez – electronics and vocals.

The Englishman Richard Blair became interested in Colombian music while working as a recording engineer at Peter Gabriel’s Real World studios on a recording session with Toto La Momposina, the queen mother of Afro-Colombian music. Blair was so smitten he decided to visit
Colombia on a short vacation. A couple of weeks became a couple of months that in turn evolved into a job (should say a bunch of jobs) working as a freelance engineer because by then, Blair had no intentions of leaving.

With a background in both drum and bass, and in “world music” Richard Blair began to hear concordances between
England, Africa and Colombia
, and began to see possibilities for a new music that was a synthesis of the three. Blair started working on the regular with Colombian musicians. (

Over the years, beginning in 1997 with their first recording Southern Star, Sidestepper continues to evolve. They are a planet with three moons: they work in the studio, they work clubs and concerts as a full band, and they also do electronic beats, percussion, vocals and raps in clubs. Each of these elements has its specific sound.

Beyond the aural, there is also a socio-political thrust to this music that is probably not obvious to those unfamiliar with Colombian culture. As Richard Blair notes, part of his goal was to produce a music reflective of the totality of Colombian culture - which is a positive spin on a basic struggle to overcome white supremacy and cultural hegemony.

 

"Normally, the Costeños (people from the coast) hang out with Costeños. And the people from Bogota hang out with other people from the city. Bogota is in the mountains, and the stereotype is they are all intellectual and very cold. The stereotype of the Costeños is that they’re uncouth and loud. Once we put the band together, it became more fashionable to appreciate Black people and Black music in Colombia. All the pop bands here are basically White rich kids. The best thing we could do without saying a word is just appear on stage."


—Richard Blair


As Blair delved deeper into the musical culture of
Colombia and the influences from Jamaica and Nigeria, Blair made a discovery that in retrospect is obvious: “The more I hear from these three places, the more I hear a relationship. There is some Nigerian music that sounds as if it could easily be Colombian. So I tried to create a Colombian Afro-beat.”

MY FEELINGS

Sidestepper represents a conscious development of the creole identity—I should say the “politicized creole element” in Colombian culture. This mixing process has a number of strains. One strain is the mixing of acoustic with electronic elements. Another strain is the mixing of Euro-centric sensibilities with Afro-centric sensibilities.

I am a bit apprehensive about using the shorthand of "creole" and “centricity.” I do not mean to imply the dominance of one over the other, or some sort of racial essentialism in outlook or cultural behavior, but I do mean to recognize different worldviews and also recognize the centrality of cultural fusion to the "American" identity—where "
America" includes all of the Americas from Canada to Chile and the Caribbean.

 

For those interested in a fuller understanding, I strongly recommend Music of the Common Tongue: Survival and Celebration in African American Music by Christopher Small, a musicologist from New Zealand who has done both extensive and amazing work in identifying and mapping out specific behavior and cultural modalities in music (hence the “centrics”).

For the purposes of this brief overview, I will confine myself to the production and uses of music.

What I most admire about Sidestepper is the minimalism, the stripping down of polyrhythms to a bass line against a single drum beat, or a melody running in counterpoint to the rhythm. Because Sidestepper’s music is never busy or elaborate, one might think it’s easy or rudimentary. That would be a mistake.

Particularly, the songs More Grip and
3AM exemplify an understanding not only of the African origins of the music in its rhythmic sophistication but also the tonal qualities have African origins. Listen to how the voices sound, how the singers attack the notes, the keening quality in the voices of the women, the cleanness of the falsetto and the gruffness of the lower pitches.

Beyond all of that, you get the clear impression that this is trance music - music designed to transform the listener, in some cases to make the prevailing conditions easier to bear but in other cases the purpose of the transformation is to inspire dreams and insights that will lead the listener to literally transform the environment.

 

This intention to transform the listener rather than simply entertain an audience is a major component of Afro-centricity.

Without going on too long, Sidestepper appeals to my valuation of trance music.
 
BLACK MUSIC, WHITE VOICE

 

In researching Sidestepper, I noticed that without exception the mainstream media pays close attention to the fruit and totally ignores the root. The preponderance of quotes are from Richard Blair.

 

The dangerous subtext is that he is the brains of the operation. To be clear, I don’t believe that Blair believes this but rather that the media projects this.

My first and second questions to those media types and others who are enthralled with Blair are:

 

 1. Why do you think Blair is so taken with these self defined “afro” sounds, and 2. Shouldn’t there be an equal focus on those key elements as there is on the putting together of the elements?

 

It is too easy, by far, to look at Afro culture as a Lego block that Euros use to create fantastic constructs. My belief is that both the process of producing Afro-centric culture and the culture itself is not only valuable, our cultures and the process of producing our cultures are also intellectual achievements.

The other musicians and singers are important.

This is not simply an argument about white brains versus black brawn. We have confronted this particular situation when trying to understand James Brown. While some argue that there is only one James Brown and that none of the band members could do what he did before or after working with James, therefore we should elevate James Brown to the pinnacle and not focus on the other musicians.

While I recognize the valid parts of the argument, there is a deeper reality. James Brown may have been the only James Brown but there were other musicians (George Clinton comes immediately to mind) who put together influential and important funk aggregations. I think winner-take-all capitalism and emphasis on Western individualism blinds us to the importance of the collective and the existence of multiple nuclei, multiple centers that become significant spheres of influence.

In the case of Sidestepper, I am arguing that while Blair obviously brings a lot to the table, the others also bring important elements, and more than that, we should also be aware of the importance of the table itself.

 

After all, Blair is not trying to write classical music, nor is he trying to build on English folk music. There are critical elements intrinsic to this Afro-centric table, aspects that are significant about the ways in which folk embedded in Afro-centric cultures produce and use music.
 
To me, Sidestepper is an aural recognition and representation of the importance and social significance of true Creolization, the true merging of human efforts to learn one from another and build on the accomplishments of each other without ignoring or eliminating the existence of one aspect in favor of the elevation of another aspect.

 

For too long integration has meant adapting Euro-centric dominance. But as their name connotes, Sidestepper shows us a way to avoid losing ourselves as we move into the future.


Hopefully this quick overview and thumbnail philosophical investigation, plus almost two hours of Sidestepper music will lead us at least to recognize and possibly even appreciate the existence of music from the Diaspora. This is an all African heritage music, a product of cultural creolization, music that is commonly and simply better known as “black music.”

 

For more about Sidestepper, please visit http://sidestepper.net/

 

Kalamu ya Salaam is a New Orleans-based writer and filmmaker. He is also the founder of Nommo Literary Society - a Black writers workshop.

 

Please e-mail comments to comments@thenewblackmagazine.com 

 

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