Monday, September 17, 2007

Maga Bo Interview: "Hip hop, Like Any Discipline, Can Be a Form of Therapy and Source of Positive Change.

(Photos courtesy of Maga Bo's Kolleidosonic)

Soon to tour North America and Canada, but sadly with no Toronto date - I hit Maga Bo up for an interview. Here are the results where he talks about life in the Favela, his work as a sound recordist, his travels and his work using music as a tool of participation for those excluded from a material society that whizzes by them without pause for even a whisper of concern.

Your recent mix CD was called Confusion of Tongues, is the name some sort of reference to the cacophony of different voices that haunt your mixes and releases?

It's a reference not only to that, but more specifically to the story of the collapse of the Tower of Babel, which was built with the intention to reach higher into the sky than god. As punishment for this blasphemy, god banished humans to the furthest corners of the earth in a confusion of tongues. It's a classic story which has been written about and has inspired many different pieces of artwork.

Here are two paintings which helped inspire the title Confusion of Tongues by Gustave Doré and, The Tower of Babel by Pieter Brueghel the Elder.

Whats your own background and what sort of music would you have played when you first started to get into DJ-ing? Its pretty hard to really isolate and put you into one box isn't it?

I've always been into a really diverse range of music and my DJ sets have reflected that since day one. I initially began to DJ as a way to show my production work in public and then it just grew from there. In the beginning, I found it really difficult to get gigs, especially when there was no real way of describing what I do without simply listing all of the different influences involved.

I also found it difficult in Rio, because the market is really oriented toward proven formulas which can guarantee a good draw for the promoters and club owners. It's much easier for them to make money by booking DJs that people know (local or international) that are going to play music that is accessible and familiar to most people. I got into music in the first place to express myself, but I always felt like that was difficult within the established boundaries of the local club scene, so I just persevered with what I believed in and continue to do so.

From what I've read you've traveled extensively; is this part of a methodology of searching out new interesting sounds? Can you tell me of some of the most exciting and surprising ways you've seen music used while traveling?

I've loved to travel and get to know new people and places as long as I can remember, so seeking out new sounds as part of my travels has been a very organic progression. Although I have done a fair amount of backpacking and hitch-hiking around the world as a tourist, my traveling has become much more of work oriented. I am also a sound recordist working primarily with documentary films and have been able to travel a lot as a result.

Most of the time, depending on the place, after wrapping a shoot, I spend time connecting with people and working on music on location. I'm now getting ready to spend the month of November in Ethiopia working on a film and producing music afterwards. So, I guess you could say that I take advantage of other people paying for my transportation as much as possible.

Outside of the restrictive boundaries of North America and Europe, where there is less police presence, fiscalization, and fewer resources to go around, noise compliance laws are not respected as much and as a result, it is much more common to see people using their own sound systems however they see fit. I love this!

I'm always fascinated by how people can manage to rig together a mobile sound system with a car battery, some trashed speakers, random wire and maybe a cart or a bicycle or even a backpack with a megaphone. The whole point of doing this is to express oneself - whether to yell at people and tell them to change their ways, blast their favorite music, broadcast the local winning lottery numbers, let people know that it's time to pray or to just try and attract customers.

One of the last times my friend Grey (Filastine) was here in Rio, he brought me an amp that I ordered on Ebay in the states, we borrowed some speakers, roped another friend with a car into driving us to Lapa and just set up our sound system on the street using pirated electricity from a manhole. We played several times on the street during carnival and never had the police come and tell us to stop. Nearly every time we did this in Seattle, we were chased off by the police. Even during the Art Walk Open house whatever you call it Tuesday night thing where culture is "important" and everything is free and open.

Where did the bug for travel come from and what made you settle in Rio De Janeiro above elsewhere?

In Seattle, I got involved with the local Brazilian community recording as well as playing percussion and became interested in Brazilian culture. At the same time, I'd been plotting an escape from the rain and dreary climate for a long time. Eventually, things came together financially and I was able to come to Rio to check it out. I found work doing English language recordings and made just enough to pay my rent. That was 8 years ago. I stay because I love the weather, the beach, Brazilian culture and music, the Portuguese language, my friends and community. I am at home here.

You are involved in researching ethno-music, do you think there are qualitatively different ways of enjoying music and giving meaning to it?

This is a really good question and, in all honesty, I'm not sure that I can answer this with conviction. First, I'd like to point out that ALL music is "ethno-music" - that goes for Britney Spears and Madonna all the way through to music played in a circumcision ceremony in the forest in Senegal. To be quantitative about it, the behavioral norms of people enjoying Jola circumcision songs or "Like a Virgin" in their "native" settings is very different.

I think the motivation of people seeking out music in different environments or cultural settings can be different as well, but I think the actual experience of "enjoying" the music is extremely similar or even the same. Music is a form of self-expression and communication. It is a language which can say many different things - from the extremely sacred to the extremely profane and everything in between. My faculty to experience, or enjoy, music is the same, regardless of whether it is gangsta rap or sufi music.

You've described living in Rio as a bit of a "mindfuck," where you can be chilling on a roof and five minutes away there's a war zone with people wielding machine guns in a neighborhood beside you. What sort of psychic landscape does this create for people living there and does it have much of an effect on your own music?

A lot of people are terrified by this reality, but everyone deals with it in their own way. Most people simply take it into account and act accordingly. Don't leave the house with anything that you would care to lose. Don't go to an unknown favela without having a local contact. Etc.

Rio, like anywhere in the world, is a place where people live and want to be in peace. People want to be happy and healthy, love their family, make a living. Living in a challenging situation where violence, crime and poverty are common, forces people to unite to some degree and communicate.

Everytime I go back to the states, I notice more and more how the culture of the individual is really strong there. If you have money and privilege, you don't need anyone. That's what fuck you money is. There is much less fuck you money in Brazil and much more human interaction. So, whether this has an effect on my music, I really don't know. It definitely affects my personal relations with people and probably also somehow seeps into my music as well.....

You worked on a stunning mix for World Up, can you tell me about the work the organisation does, the sort of projects its involved in and just how it is using hip hop as a tool of education and action?

Their main objective is to promote international hip hop culture by producing events and creating situations where people can connect, show their work, learn and grow. Hip hop, like any discipline, can be a form of therapy and source of positive change. Any discipline in which we are forced to confront ourselves and our own weaknesses in order to grow and learn can be a means through which we learn about ourselves, our relationship with those around us and the world at large.

In modern-day city life, many of the traditional disciplines (like farming, capoeira, circumcision ceremonies, sports or whatever) are no longer part of our lives. Many of these activities were ways in which we learned about ourselves, related with our families and communities and grew into healthy, adult human beings.

Hip hop is being used as a tool to fill some of these roles. It is a way that people can learn a skill which boosts their self-esteem, teaches them how to learn (and solve problems) on their own and how to express themselves in a healthy, positive way.

Baile funk has reached a pretty startling level of popularity in the west, Bonde do Role and MIA feature on magazine covers, and a lot of club sets seem to have their baile funk moment; I'm wondering has much of this success made its way back to the originating producers/scenes in your city?

Yes and no. There are now a few DJs and MCs that are traveling internationally and have benefited from this exposure. They, in turn, have been influenced by music that they heard outside of Brazil and this has slowly been entering into their music. Their audience, however, hasn't had the same experience and is a bit resistant to too much change all at once.

Some of this "post baile funk" as it's being called here, can be heard at parties which are not in favelas, but in clubs (which usually are prohibitively expensive for most people). At any given baile in a favela, you would be hard pressed to notice any great difference or change as a result of the hype surrounding baile funk outside of Brazil. Most people have never heard of Bonde do Rolê or MIA, for example.

In a similar vein there seems to be something in the air around favelas and ghetto music, kudoru springs to mind too; is there a reactionary aspect to this fascination among Western listeners? In one way it sets aside the harsh realities of favella life, seeking a glamor from poverty, with out much awareness of the context where the music is born - all for a voyeuristic exotic pleasure for the ear? I think Rupture has raised something along these lines in the past, what do you think?

There is a tendency to exoticize "the other" or people who are living in a reality that is vastly different and/or unknown. There is a long history of this - from the western world to the "third world" and all the way around again. It is an objectification of people and culture which is incredibly damaging and perpetuates racial, cultural, religious and sexual inequality. The term "world music" is an excellent example of this. From the beginning, it meant music which was not from the western world and went on to lump Tuvan throat singing in with Jamaican mento on the same shelf.

By making huge generalizations like this, the richness and complexity of culture and music is belittled and objectified in the name of consumer culture. Jace (DJ /Rupture) likes to point out that "global music" is Timbaland or Britney Spears and I couldn't agree with him more. On a more positive note, it is a sign that people are, in fact, opening up to things outside of their comfort zone and engaging at some level. This has the capacity to transform into a beneficial exchange for all involved, but mutual respect and awareness are crucial.

On the other hand, what are the most interesting ways you have seen western forms of music being subject to re-interpretation?

While there can be damaging effects as a result of poorly or even ignorantly informed cultural interaction, there are many, many wonderful things that have come out of creative cultural exchange. There is the salsa movement in Senegal, Cambodian country and western bands, highlife and juju bands using electric guitars in the 50's and 60's or Jamaicans playing R & B. One of my favorites was seeing the house band for a circus in Madurai, India playing surf music. Anything and everything is possible!

Some might what you focus on is a transnational bass music, or a ghetto to ghetto style; how do you explain what you do with music and what are the threads connecting such wild diversity?

Well, I play music from the ghetto, but also music not from the ghetto. There is no discrimination in my music! I just play what I like. This can vary wildly, but I do like to form a narrative and tell a kind of story with what I play. It's kind of a way of making connections between things that may seem different, but actually share many common characteristics, whether it is in the rhythm, the melody, harmony, timbre, lyrics or feel.

Most of us who think we have a pretty wide eye for music are strikingly limited compared to you, its the usual lexicon of next big thing, dubstep, minimal and baltimore etc etc ; but from your wider palette where do you see the most exciting and innovative forms of music coming from?

Hmmm, lots of places. I'm digging on cumbia, champeta and chutney, all of which are mashups of various different things. I think as the bongo flava industry in East Africa grows and gets more sophisticated, there will be some interesting stuff there. Especially, if taarab starts to be integrated into the mix. Both Senegal and South Africa have big hip hop scenes and there's some great stuff coming out lately. In Brazil, there are a lot of people combining Brazilian musics with different forms of electronic music.

With the release of Favela Rising, many people will now be aware of the work of the community group like AfroReggae, can you tell me how you ended up coming across them and eventually working with them to build a studio in Complexo do Alemão? How are they using music to challenge different forms of oppresion?

I knew about them through their international touring band, which I'd seen perform a few times. They have a very visible presence here in Rio. Later, I was introduced to their international relations person, who is a friend of a friend. We then started talking and brainstorming as to what we could do. I had been wanting to do some sort of community oriented work for some time. Unfortunately, the studio in Complexo do Alemão has been postponed partly as a result of lack of resources and partly as a result of heavy violence that has been going down there. So, instead I made proposal to teach workshops on beat-making in Reason at their digital radio studio (and computer center) in Parada de Lucas. Afroreggae is a big organization and things move very slowly, so we are still in the beginning stages of this.

Their objective is very similar to WorldUp! in that they are using music and culture to help young people (and especially people involved in trafficking) develop self esteem and learn skills which can be marketable (and get out of drug trafficking). So, it may be that one person gets involved because they want to play music and in the process of that, they end up realizing that they can identify and accomplish their dreams and goals. That may lead them to taking computer, dance or english classes, and from there, who knows?

On another level, they are using music to become "visible." This is directly related to the exoticization of "the other." While the world around them pays them (the poor and primarily black people in the favelas in Rio) no attention and essentially treats them as invisible (MV Bill has a lot to say about this in his work), they use music as a way of asserting themselves and participating in society at large. Afroreggae is a direct result of using resources at hand in a positive and creative way to change things.

You also work on the soundtracks for documentaries, what are some of the more interesting documentaries you have worked on?

One of the things I like best about working on documentaries is that I get out from in front of the computer and into the world where I meet extraordinary people that I would never meet in any other way. I've filmed rubber tappers in the Amazon, kite makers in Gujarat, female circumsizers in Senegal and cocoa farmers in Guyana. Part of the process of making a documentary is to forge personal relationships with the people that you are filming. This necessitates exchange, honesty and and openness and that is a powerful thing.

Your touring at the moment, playing quite a few different places too; what sort of reactions are you getting, what are people being responsive too and after the gigging is done whats next for your good self?

Actually, I just finished a 2 month tour in Europe and a 3 week production trip to Senegal where I was participating in an artist exchange, producing new tracks and filming 2 video clips for tracks on my upcoming album, "Archipelagos," to be released on Soot Records. Next up is a USA/Canada tour in October and then a documentary shoot in Ethiopia, followed by a short stint in South Africa to do some gigs, make some new tracks and shoot another video.

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