Chad Parkhill takes us for a tour through the world of weird, wonderful and unexpectedly danceable tunes. iPods at the ready: it’s time to kick off with part one of this special five-part blog series.
Bahumutsi Drama Group, ‘To the Comrades (PB edit)’
Over the past few years, the phenomenon of disco edits – fuelled by young dance music producers who want to cut their teeth by reworking previously existing songs – has been through a boom-and-bust cycle. What started off as a means of tweaking unknown songs from the archives for contemporary audiences has become something of a farce, with producers either not looking very far into those archives (see Soul Clap’s excellent edit of Jamie Foxx’s ‘Extravaganza’, the lustre of which is dimmed by the fact that ‘Extravaganza’ was barely five years old when Soul Clap applied the scalpel) or doing abominable things to well-known pop songs (if you must hear an example, then this edit of ‘Love Shack’ will suffice). This is something of a shame, though, because a good disco edit can act as a conduit between the past and present, startling us by making new connections and remapping our musical universes. For example, did you know that Cat Stevens made a weird cosmic disco track called ‘Was Dog a Doughnut’? Pilooski’s edit of the track does more than make it palatable for contemporary dancefloors; it also makes us rethink an artist whose work, by and large, has been unfortunately reduced to the shorthand ‘70s folkie; converted to Islam’.
Production duo Purple Brain’s 2009 edit of Bahumutsi Drama Group’s ‘To the Comrades’ represents the logical end of the crate-digging arms race that the popularity of disco edits started. While producers like Pilooski and his peers dug deep, none of them would think to edit something as wilfully obscurantist as a song from anti-apartheid activist and playwright Maishe Maponya’s play Busang Meropa (Bring Back the Drums). This song was only ever released as a private pressing in South Africa; the ‘label’, Sounds from Bahumutsi, didn’t put out any further albums. Quite how two Australians living in New York ever discovered this rare slab of wax remains unclear.
In any case, we should be thankful that they did, because while their edit of ‘To the Comrades’ doesn’t perform the recontextualising work that makes the form so interesting, it does something rarer: it brings something genuinely novel out of the archive. ‘To the Comrades’ may have been composed around the same time Paul Simon’s album Graceland was introducing swathes of first-world listeners to the sounds of black South Africa, but its message and form couldn’t be more different. Instead of gently effervescent mbaqanga guitars, ‘To the Comrades’ is driven by a hard-edged synthesised bassline. Instead of offering generic, vaguely politicised nostrums (à la ‘Homeless’), ‘To the Comrades’ employs direct address to wannabe revolutionaries, asking them to reconsider the violence with which they pursue their aims: ‘My mother is in that house / My father is in that bus / I saw them go up in flames / Why do you punish them like that?’
The politicisation and directness are challenging, given that African music is often presented in the west as either cuddly, life-affirming spiritual music (see Graceland, or the soundtrack to The Lion King) or as the alien sounds of a completely incomprehensible Other (as in this ethnomusicological field recording of a Burundian ‘Chant avec cithare’, deemed sufficiently terrifying to be included in Swedish musician Fever Ray’s Halloween podcast for Resident Advisor.) In short, ‘To the Comrades’ presents a kind of African music not readily accessible to – or comprehensible by – the West.
Of course, bridging that cultural divide is made easier when the beats have been tweaked so the song can slide neatly into a DJ set at 128 BPM. If you like what you hear in the video above, the song can be found on Purple Brain’s CD and 7” package for RVNG INTL.
Chad Parkhill is the Festival Manager of the National Young Writers’ Festival. His work has appeared in The Australian, The Lifted Brow, Meanjin, and The Quietus, among others.