Fretboards & Circuit Boards

Chico Mann - Analog DriftBack in March, pop critic Oliver Wang posed a question to readers of his blog, Soul-Sides.comCan any of my musicological-oriented readers out there opine on why “electro” production is appealing? By “electro” I mean things like synthesizer chords that are clearly mechanical in source (i.e. can’t be created using any acoustic instrument, amplified or not).

It’s a great question — what’s the appeal of inorganic sounds? Thinking back to that Raymond Scott collection that came out a while ago, I’d have to say novelty and otherworldliness are two big elements of that appeal, or at least were at the start.

In Jon Pareles’s review of this weekend’s Moogfest he covers this very topic, and drills down further. There’s the analog vs. digital synthesizer debate — do you prefer your synthetic tones to be continuous electronic signals or chopped up into 0s and 1s? Which is more real? Pareles seems to come down on the side of the analog purists, writing that “Analog sounds are a funky corrective to sterile digital tones; colliding waveforms make a beautiful noise.” But overall, for Pareles, the festival was one of “synthetic tones that grew to feel natural.”

Of course, now certain synthetic sounds are just another part of the pop palette, they do feel natural, and thanks to their widespread use, especially in the ’80s, they can readily evoke a host of meanings, from retro cool (think 808 hand claps) to straight-up cheese (see “Red Rose for Gregory” in my previous post).

Antibalas guitarist Marcos Garcia has been mixing afrobeat and Latin grooves with drum machines and synths for a few years now under the moniker Chico Mann. Last week his latest album, Analog Drift, was released on Wax Poetics Records.

Chico Mann - Analog Drift: Muy...EsniquiAn earlier version of this album, called Analog Drift: Muy​.​.​.​Esniqui, dropped in 2009, and I listened to it a lot when it first came out. It was released on CD in limited quantities, and it was also available on the Chico Mann bandcamp page. That album has since been taken down, but the individual tracks are still up and findable with some Googling (e.g., here and here).

The songs on the new Analog Drift, like the old version, and most of the stuff on the artist’s Manifest Tone series, follow a simple formula: one or two guitars lay down an afrobeat-style groove, an 808-sounding drum machine provides the beat, synth bass, leads, and pads fill out the sound, and (sometimes) repetitive, chant-like vocals (in English and/or Spanish) float on top. Some of the tracks have enough bleeps and boops and buzzes for an old-school video game, and the album art of both versions — Sim ziggurat and 8-bit caricature — clearly evokes that aesthetic. It’s fun and hypnotic. Novel and retro. Warm analog and cool digital. Spacefunk en Español.

Chico Mann, “Guardalo (El Silencio)” [Buy Analog Drift]

Just ’cause, here’s some Earth-bound, down-and-dirty Antibalas:

Antibalas, “Pay Back Africa” [Buy Who Is This America?]

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4 Responses to Fretboards & Circuit Boards

  1. David G says:

    I guess I’m not exactly clear on the question. People use electronics because they’re “easy” to use and because they create a different sound. I kind of think this question is the equivalent of asking why people use guitars: see above reasoning. Why do “electronic” instruments require a different explanation than any other instrument? Although I guess it becomes more complex as you move from recorded music to “live” performances.

    But, it would be more fun to just choose the acoustic vs. electronic camp solely based on these two songs. I like the Antibalas better therefore I HATE ELECTRONIC INSTRUMENTS.

    • Christopher T says:

      The question makes sense to me. It also makes sense to ask why people use guitars. Why was the guitar so essential to the rock lineup?

      I think that Wang was asking what the cultural meaning of electronic sound was, and Parele answers that it has to do with the line of contrast some have drawn between “natural” and “synthetic.”

      I’m not really sure how to make sense of Chico Mann, but I think that for a lot of chiptune composers, 8 bit music primarily signifies a lot of childhood nostalgia and related desire for simplicity and moral clarity of early video games.

    • Billy L says:

      What I read into the question is that there is something fundamentally different about generating sound electronically than making noise the old-fashioned way — banging a drum, plucking a string or vibrating a column of air. The former involves none of the (bio)mechanics of traditional music-making… I think Wang was hinting at the idea that it’s an abstracted way of making music, so can it have the same appeal as more bodily or visceral ways of making music.

      • David G says:

        I like that explanation, Billy. The visceral angle is interesting, and certainly why computers are not interesting to see live. But he clarifies: “So far, only one of these answers actually address the *sound* which is what I’m curious about.” I’m not sure there’s a good answer to his question because I don’t think it’s a good question (because I really don’t think enough listeners care how sound is produced).

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