SXSW: Ditching the hype to chase music of Colombia, Nigeria, South Africa
The hype machine at South by Southwest is a powerful, and expensive, instrument, an engine of promotion that drives otherwise rational music lovers to panic in Austin. On Saturday night that machine was running on overdrive: Jack White on 6th Street, Skrillex a few blocks away at the Mohawk, Eminem and 50 Cent at the Shady party, all of which were relentlessly pushing otherwise adventurous souls to feel guilty about resisting. After all, isn't this what South by Southwest has become -- a place where you can say you saw an platinum artist on a small stage?
Well, no, and considering that I'd seen all three of the above numerous times, a decision was made to watch another kind of musical story unfold, so for part of my night I chased a few international artists from around the world who are removed from the hype, and it was the perfect head-clearer for a listener overwhelmed by so many media blitzes.
Grupo Canalon is a traditional Colombian rhythm band that performed on Friday at Copa. The group is centered around the magnetic sound of the marimba, a wooden xylophone that when struck with mallets puts forth gentle, melodic tones, and made up of a dozen players/instrumentalists, including congas, an amazing marimba player named Jesús Javier Ardila and five female vocalists/percussionists. Led by Nidia Sofía Góngora, the ladies sang and danced while keeping time with shakers.
The group had played earlier in the day on the corner of 5th and Brazos, and clad in matching white outfits, had drawn a sizable crowd of passersby -- many of whom then sought them later at Copa. During the day, the sound created a pack of toe-tapping, head-nodding new fans. In the evening, though, the music transformed from outdoor curiosity into indoor dance music. The little room ended up jammed with dancers grooving to the sound of the Pacific coast of Colombia.
That traditional sound is a mishmash of African and Caribbean sounds, and if you close your eyes you can hear hints of West African and Afro-Cuban music. Grupo Canalon, though, is dedicated to keeping alive the Afro-Colombian sounds that germinated when African slaves arrived in the 19th century, bringing with them their rhythms. Hipster reissue labels have been scouring Colombia for early recordings of this music, perhaps unaware that groups like Grupo Canalon are dedicated to bringing the sound to new ears. These ears felt quite relieved to relax, take in the rhythms and groove alongside the least pretentious, and one of the most enthusiastic, crowds in Austin, Texas.
Down the street was a very happy bunch of Nigerian emigres giddy that Nigerian rapper Naeto C was onstage. Presented by Spinlet Music, a digital music company that focuses on mobile phone distribution across Africa, the showcase featured a host of Lagos artists who, judging by the tightly packed shout-along crowd at the itsy Beso Cantina, are getting their message into the ears of a devoted Nigerian American audience. Naeto, who is now based in Houston, presented bounce-along tracks rapped in English that drew on complicated rhythms but were cut of the same general cloth as their American pop-rap counterparts.
American labels have started looking to Africa for artists more and more, and Sub Pop Records just released a new record by South African singer/rapper Spoek Mathambo, whose genre-stretching music was much more adventurous than Naeto's. Mathambo, backed by a four-piece band, offered intriguing rhythms and ideas influenced by electronic dance music, hip-hop and post-punk. The latter was most pronounced during a weird and wonderful track called "Control," a riff on Joy Division's "She's Lost Control."
The cover was a bit of surprise, coming from a South African rapper, but then, that's what South by Southwest is all about (at least, for me, on Friday): getting away from the buzz every now and again and chasing adventure.
(Saturday night I'll be following the hype again, however.)
-- Randall Roberts in Austin, Texas
Photo: Grupo Canalon performs at Copa in Austin, Texas, during the South by Southwest music conference. Credit: Randall Roberts / Los Angeles Times