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Love Lessons

Projects like Open Strings are difficult to review. I have been listening to this double album, the latest release from Blur and Gorillaz frontman Damon Albarn’s Honest Jon’s label, for twelve hours a day since it arrived in the mail last week. It didn’t take me long to fall in love with the remarkable first disc, which presents some of the remarkable music captured for posterity in the years following World War I, when major record labels made a concerted effort to reach markets outside the United States and Europe. And the second disc, which offers new material by contemporary artists inspired by those archival recordings, won my heart just as quickly. Simply put, this is the sort of release that becomes a cornerstone of my music library.

But the speed with which I reached this conclusion gives me pause. As great as my pleasure in listening to Open Strings has been, I can’t shake the nagging suspicion that it was enabled by something less wholesome. When I first slid the discs out of their lovely cardboard sleeves, emblazoned with Katharina Immekus’s clever black-and-white update on the sort of intricate patterns that cover mosques, I felt myself getting turned on by the prospect of entering another world. And that sensation, exciting though it may have been, underscores the challenges that face this kind of endeavor.

Katharina Immekus's sleeve for Disc B of the Open Strings compilation

As Edward Said convincingly demonstrates in his landmark book Orientalism, the interest of Western intellectuals in places like Egypt, Palestine and Persia almost always involves more self­-interest than they are willing or able to acknowledge. No matter how hard they try to be open-minded, fantasies of the East, the residue of centuries of oversimplification and exaggeration, still color their perception of the region to a significant extent.

It’s as if the Middle East can only be discerned through a translucent screen onto which those fantasies are involuntarily projected. Lovers of the exotic Orient often note the overwhelming richness of their experiences there, the mass of details that can only be absorbed as an impressionistic blur. But what such descriptions usually fail to account for is that this excess of sensory information derives as much from seeing what isn’t there, the deep-rooted stereotypes that Westerners bring to the region, as from seeing what is.

Or hearing it. The tracks on the first disc of Open Strings tend to be spare, often deploying a single instrument like the oud. If anything, they should inspire rigorous concentration rather than the feeling that there is too much content to handle. In the slower passages of Nechat Bey’s work, prominently featured on the album, there are moments when convention, the expectation that one phrase should naturally follow another, nearly loses its hold. Yet this insight only came to me after several listens, so eager was my mind to fill in the rests with my own sense of what must come next. The extra-textual associations bound up with this music are so deeply engrained within occidental culture that I struggled to approach it with a clear head.

While some degree of synaesthesia is inevitable in any cross-cultural situation, it tends to be more pronounced when amplified by a substantial difference in privilege. For much of the modern era, Westerners could afford to confuse their fantasies of the East with the reality those fantasies obscured because negative consequences were minimized by the powers of empire.

The history of East-West relations since the 1960s has, in a sense, been the history of this privilege’s gradual erosion. Rather than being anomalous, the events of September 11th, 2001were a logical outcome of this trend. And the vast outpouring of content about the Middle East and other predominantly Islamic lands in that tragic day’s wake testifies to the realization that responding to the threat of terrorism is not a matter of the West regaining its footing so much as finding a new place to stand. 

While historical analyses have dominated mainstream discussion, there have plenty of cultural attempts to help this cause along. From well-meaning but ultimately shallow gestures like Bruce Springsteen’s decision to include stereotypically Eastern instruments on his post-9/11 album The Rising to more sustained engagement with the region, such as the work of graffiti artist Banksy, the past decade has witnessed a significant rise in attempts to find aesthetic remedies for political problems.A Banksy image from part of his work in Palestine

Laudable though such efforts may be, however, their tendentiousness has usually come at the expense of art. Perhaps the most troubling insight gleaned from careful scrutiny of aesthetic Orientalism is that there has never been much correlation between the knowledge that Western creators bring to their engagement with the Middle East and the quality of the work they produce. Indeed, it often seems that ignorance and carelessness have served art better than the cautious, enlightened approach to foreign cultures.

Does making effective use of content from another society demand disregard for the context in which it was originally produced? Perhaps the antiquarian approach and its “politically correct” offspring fail to inspire much successful art because they worry too much about respecting their source materials. To give one obvious example, there must be a reason why the misplayed sitar in many psychedelic rock songs has more power to move the listener than the more reverential treatment that instrument received from Western world music aficionados.

But as much aesthetic sense as this realization makes, its political implications are too disturbing to ignore. The expropriation of cultural resources from a different society may not have the same human impact as the expropriation of its natural resources – the prime motivation for imperialism in the modern era – but it follows the same logic. The person who thinks it justifiable to pick and choose from a distant land’s cultural heritage is a lot more likely to reason that it also makes sense to loot its mineral and agricultural wealth.

This brings us back to the problem of desire, the programming that led me to fall in love with Open Strings before I’d even finished my first date with the album. Long before my mental map of the Middle East achieved passable accuracy, I was drawn ineluctably to the sounds of the stringed instruments popular there and in adjoining parts of the globe. I couldn’t tell you where a particular song was from or what significance, religious or secular, it had in its place of origin. I only knew that the music touched something deep within me.

At the same time, even though I simply liked the way the music sounded, it inevitably conjured visions of the Orient, often wildly inaccurate, that had been instilled in me, against my knowledge and will, since I was a pre-schooler. I might not have been able to point out Baghdad on the globe, but I could tell you all about the palaces, minarets and colorful open-air markets I saw there on my musical peregrinations. By way of comparison, the opening sequence in Disney’s animated film Aladdin was a model of cultural sensitivity.

Even as my understanding of geography deepened, these visions persisted, reinforced as they were by everything from movies to the décor in Middle Eastern restaurants keen on giving American customers what they wanted. Although I learned to immerse myself in music intently enough to limit these reveries, they still worked their magic behind the scenes, fueling my conviction that the sounds I associated with the Orient had special power to transport me from my native boredom to a world of mind-blowing excess.

While Open Strings comes with no mission statement, no explanation of what the compilation is meant to achieve, its two-disc format strongly suggests that the project’s creators had people like me in mind. The first disc, with its sometimes crackly – though admirably spruced up – archival recordings is imbued with the aura of a world that is far away in both time and space, precisely the sort of psychogeography suited to Western fantasies about liberation from the tedium of everyday life in the era of Starbucks and Eat-a-Pita.

Considered in isolation, together with Open Strings’ eye-catching but minimally informative packaging, this disc might seem like an invitation to the sort of insouciant cultural imperialism that my own childhood affection for Middle Eastern sounds betrayed. But because it is paired with that second disc full of contemporary responses to the archival material, the album’s effect is far more complicated.

On the one hand, many of those new tracks play fast and loose with the musical heritage they reference. Paul Metzger’s lengthy “Emel” sounds like the sort of New Age music they used to play at Nature Company stores, only with the RPMs turned up to an anxiety-inducing pace. Michael Blue Smaldone’s “Martissa” slips fluidly from Assyria to Appalachia and back. And Bruce Licher’s menacingly propulsive “Mesopotamia” sounds like a demo from the goth band Sisters of Mercy before the vocals were dropped in.

In fact, none of the tracks on Open String’s second disc come close to reproducing the feel of the recordings from the 1920s that comprise the first one. The term “responses” is apt, since these new compositions answer the call of that classic sound, not with an echo, but with music that pays its respects less slavishly. It’s not hard to hear the old in the new. But because the artists on the second disc avoid mere imitation, the work they produced also helps us hear the new emerging from otherwise hidden folds of the old.

The same might be said for the remarkable collection of field recordings put out by the Sublime Frequencies label, which refuse to distinguish between authentic folk culture and the mish-mash of local and global sounds that floods the airwaves in the developing world. But whereas those compilations go out of their way to avoid any attempt to sort the material they contain, refusing even to provide names, Open Strings is careful to present the exchange between East and West, old and new, as a relationship of musical equals.

While it would be nice if Open Strings came with an explanatory apparatus of the sort found on Honest Jon’s superb Give Me Love complilation, the most important thing is that the album showcase the archival recordings on the first disc as the work of individual artists rather than an anonymous treasure trove of inspirational sounds. The knowledge that Kanoni Artaki’s “Soultanigiah” anticipates the multi-octave runs of the surf guitar style popularized by Lebanese-American Dick Dale or that Sami Chawa’s “Eerabi Fil Sahra” stops in midstream for what sounds like the acoustic equivalent of the flanging effect on The Cure’s song “Primary” encourages listeners to give credit where credit is due.

Rather than persisting in the imperialist presumption that the sounds of the Orient were simply there for the taking, like so many seashells washed up on the shore, Western listeners like myself can learn from Open Strings how to discern within that music the same traces of personal style that have long been ascribed to blues and country musicians of the same era.

That sort of attentive, historically minded listening will not dispel the fantasies that this material conjures. After all, it’s not as if the knowledge that a particular song was recorded by Dock Boggs or Blind Lemon Jefferson stops us from projecting a wealth of associations, some sweet and some unsavory, onto the music. But it sure beats treating the recordings as documentary evidence of a tradition impervious to the stamp of individuality.

Each time I’ve listened to Open Strings in its entirety, I’ve felt the hold of my childhood visions of the Orient diminish. Where once I saw architecture and smelled spices, I now see people working hard to realize their own visions. But my love for the music has also grown in the process. Although I still feel pangs of conscience for the desire the album stirs inside me, I have come to realize that it wasn’t the desire itself that was a problem, so much as the degree to which it was ignorant. There’s a crucial difference between lusting after a person one barely knows and lusting after a partner of many years.

That’s not to say that educated desire is necessarily better. After all, many long-term relationships are abusive. In the end, though, the path to enlightenment must pass through the doorway of knowledge. I’d rather respond consciously to someone I respect than remain in the thrall of reflexes programmed during childhood. This is the lesson I take from one of my favorite tracks on the album, “Surfin’ UAE,”  Rick Tomlinson’s wry take on rock’s debt to the Orient.

Invoking all the clichés of the surf rock subgenre, the song nevertheless manages to break with precedent just enough to keep us thinking through our pleasure, rather than in spite of it. That remarkable achievement is a perfect example of what makes Open Strings such a resounding success.


Charlie Bertsch is Zeek‘s Music Editor. Prior to joining Zeek, he held the same editorial title at Tikkun. Bertsch was also a longtime contributor to the late, great Punk Planet, and was one of the founders of the pioneering  electronic publication, Bad Subjects: Political Education For Everyday Life. He welcomes your feedback whether in comments posted here or by e-mail.  

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