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“Happy Homes Have Gramophones” –Gender, Technology, and the Sonic Restaging of Community Before and After the Partition of Bengal

co-edited by Praseeda Gopinath and Monika Mehta

Our listening practices are discursively constructed. In the sonic landscape of India, in particular, the way in which we listen and what we hear are often normative, produced within hegemonic discourses of gender, class, caste, region, and sexuality. . . This forum, Gendered Soundscapes of India, offers snapshots of sound at sites of trans/national production, marketing, filmic and musical texts. Complementing these posts, the accompanying photographs offer glimpses of gendered community formation, homosociality, the pervasiveness of sound technology in India, and the discordant stratified soundscapes of the city. This series opens up for us the question of other contexts in India where sound, gender, and technology might intersect, but, more broadly, it demands that we consider how sound exists differently in Pakistan, Sri Lanka, the Maldives, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal, and Afghanistan. How might we imagine a sonic framework and South Asia from these locations? —Guest Editors Praseeda Gopinath and Monika Mehta

For the full introduction to the forum, click here.

To read all of the posts in the forum, click here.

“She compelled respect at once by refusing on any account to be phonographed: perhaps she thought, amongst other things, that if she committed her soul to a broken piece of wax it might get broken…my subsequent experiences showed that it was only too likely,” wrote the British musicologist A.H. Fox-Strangways in 1910 about Indian female singer Chandra Prabha, while remarking on the harsh reactions to the gramophone in India (90).  Such deep-rooted discomfort with the gramophone speaks to the cognitive, perceptual and experiential challenges faced by a listener/performer when a new auditory technology substitutes familiar terrains of musical production.

In this post, I revisit the decades prior to and following the 1947 Partition of Bengal, a phase singularly volatile not only in India’s political but also its musical and technological histories.  I examine how the introduction of European harmony/polyphony in the aural imaginary of Bengal negotiates ideologies espoused by the nationalists in the (re)constitution of gendered space post-Partition by transforming relations of consumption. The production of gendered domesticity was vitally related to rigid conceptions of physical space and its allocation in colonial Bengal which, further, influenced music reception in ways worth probing.

The auditory regimes prior to the emergence of recording/radio-broadcast typified public modes of listening based on live performances engendering affective flows and presupposed human proximity. This culture of aurality is inextricably tied to communal modes of consumption and performance, be it the high-end salon-tradition of the Bengali modern song, the hard-hitting agitprop strains of the Bengal wing of the IPTA (Indian People’s Theatre Association) or even the stylized elite classical genres. The collective nature of musical practice conjures up traditional connotations of masculine spaces, especially in the case of the elite Bengali household where the gendered ideology of spatial orientation relegated the respectable Bengali woman (bhadramahila) to the interiors of the house (antahpur/andarmahal). The delights of salon-music were to be relished by the man of the house (babu).

‘Gramophone – a home entertainer’

Thus, the communitarian character of musical practice often made it elusive to respectable women. However, the emergence and subsequent sophistication of auditory technologies ushered a radical transformation to such a dynamic by dissociating music from the human performer. Besides leading to the obvious technological alienation in the listener, the privatization of the listening experience was accompanied by a condition of a penetrating solitude and interiority, a state speaking to the voices and /sounds emanating from the phonograph. At the sociological level, the entry of recording technology redefined long-held divisions of domestic space and the gendered dynamics thereof by not only democratizing musical consumption but also forging provisional collectivities of listeners often cutting across gender, class and caste. Besides, traditional associations of musical genres with specific loci- classical music with the salon/concert space for instance- gave way to a more fluid conception of domestic space assuming multiple sonic/musical identities depending on what the gramophone played. The phonographic interface, thus, radically reconfigures listening practices and produces a different paradigm of self, sound, community, and gender.

What is at stake here is not some covert form of linear technological determinism, but a more nuanced detour around auditory-technologies, spaces of consumption, and the affordances thereof that calibrate auditory experience along new registers. What merits contemplation is how (if at all) these technological innovations in the commercial arena complement and usher formal nuances and sonic innovations in the musical works they mediate. The gramophone renders problematic the uncritical conflation of the sonic and visual registers typical of live musical performance and, in the process, sets in motion a unique dynamic of interacting with musical sound. Severed from its visual footholds in live performance, phonographic sounds often provoke the listener to imagine the singing/performing body which, in turn, informs the way the sounds are processed mentally.

Vintage Gramophone spotted in Little India, Serangoon, Singapore, Image by Flickr User Linkway88, (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Indian music has traditionally been based on a single melody which, in its skeletal grammar, is an individual mode of expression, even when performed by a group. The intrinsic form of Indian and traditional East Asian music in general exhibits a non-harmonic character. The concept of musical harmony proper is considered a European import. European harmony, polyphony, and counterpoint are in their very essences a set of disparate tonal registers forging a gestalt which impresses on the mind of the listener an overarching unity. At an experiential level, the polyphonic form embodies a distinct sonic ontology and a novel dimension, as it were, and thus cannot be reduced to merely a stylistic import. It induces a new auditory condition, a new register of being-in-listening (the lecture snippet from 57:08-.1:02:07 effectively demonstrates the morphing of the basic melody of a song into its polyphonic equivalent). The new auditory condition conjoins the familiarity of the melody with the markedly different yet complementing registers of the polyphony, creating a novel sensation for the uninitiated Bengali listener.

Among the very early records to employ musical polyphony in India were two iconic musical works of the mid-20th century, one devotional in intent– Aham Rudre from Mahishasurmardini (1931) composed by the legendary music director Pankaj Mullick–and the other, a professed experiment in introducing polyphony in Bengali music, Shurer Ei Jharna (1958), by the noted composer Salil Chowdhury.

In the current context, it is important to note how the sonic dimension of musical polyphony in Aham Rudre  and Shurer Ei Jharna embodies and substitutes notions of aural communities and restages a communitarian character. Notably, the creation and circulation of these works paralleled the establishment of commercial state-radio in India (1930) and the first microgroove record in Kolkata in 1958 by the Gramophone Company.

The Gramophone Company in Calcutta marketed its records with the Bengali tagline “Shukhi Grihokon Shobhe Gramophone/Happy Homes Have Gramophones,” projecting the phonograph as the symbolic ideal of the domestic idyll and in the process confronting gendered spatial demarcations head-on by invading the auditory horizons of the secluded Bengali women. The striking presence of the gramophone in the iconic Gramophone Scene (1:35:17-1:35:28) in Satyajit Ray’s movie Ghare Baire–set in the backdrop of the 1905 Partition of Bengal–beautifully illustrates the sorority forged by the gramophone which, notably, draws even the marginalized widow Bouthan within its field of influence.

However, the gramophone superseded its commodity-character to serve not only in crass exhibitionism but also as an index of a masculine, elite consumerist culture where “serious music” and musical connoisseurship often became synonymous with the gramophone and recorded sound. A new breed of “record-collectors” came into existence, mainly belonging to the upwardly-mobile/elite classes whose passion for records was their most prominent identity-marker in the domestic realm, occasionally outweighing even their professional concerns.

But even as the radio and phonograph transcended the hitherto gendered character of musical reception by entering the women’s quarters and dissolving time-honored segregations of auditory spaces within the household, it had to contend with a deep-seated psychological discomfort in the listener, a fundamental unease with befriending technology that substituted the human. I argue that the newly insulated character of the radiophonic auditory experience was counteracted by significant efforts, conscious or otherwise, at sonically restaging and reclaiming the community lost in technological mediation.

Indian farmers gathered to listen the Farm Forum programme broadcast by All India Radio in the 1950s, Image Courtesy of Flickr User Public Resources.Org, (CC BY 2.0)

Given pet notions of musical anthropology and the chronological coincidence between the early uses of harmony and the entry and sophistication of technologically mediated music in Bengal one could, at the risk of slight oversimplification, posit that the import of the harmonic form at this significant juncture sonically compensates the auditory solitude induced by radio/phonograph by recreating a modified and idealized Platonic (Platonic here is used as an allusion to ‘music of the spheres’ to point towards how musical harmony since medieval times has been associated with ideal public) community and restaging it within the confines of the constitutive plurality of the polyphonic mode. As an aside, the initial introduction of polyphony in Shurer Ei Jharna (1958) garnered flak from a large section of the audience who cognized it as a group of amateur performers ‘singing out of key’ (Salil Chowdhury’s lecture from 30:31-31:15). Over the next few decades, however, this form was  trans-culturated and seamlessly assimilated within the sonic vocabulary of the Bengali/Indian masses, so much so that without the regular vocal/instrumental counterpoint, commercial songs nowadays are often felt to be lacking hue.

The sonic changes that I have been investigating preceded or followed the Partition of Bengal, which informed the gendered patterns of popular musical consumption. It is well-known that the exigencies of the Partition proved emancipatory for women in that they were exposed to the vagaries of the workplace, leaving the confines of their quarters. It is with an often uncritical celebratory fervor that the Partition is credited with fashioning the independent, self-reliant and educated middle-class Bengali working woman, on occasion emerging as the sole bread-earner of the family. Jasodhara Bagchi says that the “partition accelerated the earlier trends of the twentieth century of abolishing the ‘purdah that had confined the Bengali bhadramahila to her antahpur (private quarters)…The same stroke that brought this flood of uprooted marginalised women to Calcutta also opened the door to many new opportunities for Bengali middle-class Hindu women. They came out of the private domain of domesticity and child rearing to take up public duties.’”(8) Uditi Sen, however, in her revisionist reading of the celebratory impulse argues that “situational aberrations” notwithstanding, the Partition did not lead to “a transformation of social norms or any substantive change of women’s ideal role within the bounds of the family.”(16)

In the aftermath of the Second World War, which had also witnessed the entry of women into the professional/public sphere, the USA launched a propaganda war to restore women to their hearth, revivifying the “cult of the housewife,” deploying films and popular music to promote the trope of the ideal housewife. Redefining domestic spaces as woman’s space had also been in the cards for the Indian state post-Partition, which had to a large extent been governed by patterns of popular media consumption. Arguably, the coincidental emergence of musical harmony and sophistication of private auditory technologies in the years following the Partition contributed to efforts to restore women to their private quarters, by compensating the lost professional community of the self-reliant working woman with the poetic/sonic community embodied by the polyphonic form, in the process enlivening her insipid lived quarters. Popular media technologies often employ innovation in content to revivify clichéd formats; musical harmony coupled with sophisticated audio-reproduction provides a classic instance of inaugurating a new sonic dimension in popular music which provides a powerful and enthralling form of domestic leisure.

Thus, in the context of early 20th century Bengal, the gramophone was a significant import which not only reconfigured perceptual registers and musical cultures but also listening practices by entering the interiors of elite Bengali households. Besides democratizing the listening experience, which till then had largely been restricted to male constituencies, the gramophone privatized musical consumption. It was through the introduction of musical polyphony, which is intrinsically ‘public/ communal’ as regards its sonic character, that this impulse was counteracted. As mentioned earlier, these technical/musical innovations widened the scope and impact of musical performance and arguably contributed to the reconstitution of gendered domestic space post-Partition which points to subtle and complex relations among technology, (musical) genre and gender.

Featured Image: Screen Capture from by SO! Ed. Satyajit Ray’s Ghare Baire

Ronit Ghosh is a postgraduate student at the Department of Art and Technology, Aalborg University, Denmark. His research interests include aesthetic philosophy, critical sound studies and the sociology of Indian popular music. He has published articles on sound studies in the International Journal on Stereo and Immersive Media and The Rupkatha Journal and has an article forthcoming in the Journal of Sonic Studies. He is a classical violinist and an aspiring music composer.

REWIND! . . .If you liked this post, you may also dig:

Tape Hiss, Compression, and the Stubborn Materiality of Sonic Diaspora–Chris Chien

Pushing Play: What Makes the Portable Cassette Recorder Interesting?—Gustavus Stadler

Hearing “Media-Capitalism” in Egypt–Ziad Fahmy

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Sounding Out! Podcast #61: Ni Le Pen, ni Macron: Parisian Soundscapes of Resistance

CLICK HERE TO DOWNLOADNi Le Pen, ni Macron: Parisian Soundscapes of Resistance

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What does the opposition to global Trumpism sound like? Or the opposition to neoliberalism? With extreme centrist Emmanuel Macron the frontrunner and eventual winner of the French presidential elections, there were calls from the Left to take the struggle to the streets, rejecting both the fascism of the Front National and the continuation of the neoliberal status quo. This podcast puts the listener into the midst of the many demonstrations in Paris and its suburbs during the presidential election campaign. By listening in on these recordings (made over the course of three months of fieldwork) we hear a determination to fight for a genuine alternative to state repression alongside the difficulties in uniting a divided left. These recordings also provide a testament to the horror of police violence and an opportunity to reflect on the value and limitations of black-bloc tactics.

Naomi Waltham-Smith is Assistant Professor Music at the University of Pennsylvania. A graduate of the University of Cambridge and King’s College London, her research sits at the intersection of music theory, recent European philosophy, and sound studies. Music and Belonging Between Revolution and Restoration comes out with Oxford University Press on July 1, 2017 and she is writing a second monograph on The Sound of Biopolitics. She has published articles in journals including Music Theory Spectrum, Music Analysis, Journal of Music Theory, and boundary 2, and writes reviews for the LA Review of Books and b2o. She is currently engaged in a multi-site, comparative project on “Listening under global Trumpism” that involves building a sound archive of resistance on the streets in the US, the UK, and France; for more information or to contribute recordings, please send an email to naomiwal@sas.upenn.edu.

Featured image is of a black bloc demonstration on May Day in Paris. Image used with permission by the author.

tape reelREWIND! . . .If you liked this post, you may also dig:

Sounding Out! Podcast #59: Soundwalk of the Women’s March, Santa Ana — Aaron Trammell

Sounding Out! Podcast #51: Creating New Worlds From Old Sounds – Marcella Ernest

Sounding Out! Podcast #60: Standing Rock, Protest, Sound, and Power (Part 1) – Marcella Ernest

Sounding Out! Podcast #43: Retail Soundscapes and the Ambience of Commerce

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What is the ambient sound of commerce? Equally reviled and revered, the programmed soundscapes of retail space combine wonderful serendipity with quotidian blandness. This podcast examines field recordings from luxury megastores, suburban fast food joints, and everything in between. As it turns out, the corporate ambience of chain-store retail isn’t so far away from the high-brow ambitions of ambient music. Ambience is whatever surrounds us, and it’s embroiled within the same kinds of aesthetic, political, and economic struggles that have been recognized in architecture for centuries.

While a long line of thinkers have identified the links between retail and modernity, surprisingly few have addressed the phenomena in auditory terms. Following up on Jonathan Sterne’s 1997 inquiry regarding environmental music in the Mall of America, this podcast examines new developments in ambient sound that have accompanied the rise of e-commerce and the decline of brick-and-mortar stores. Segmentation of markets, nostalgia for the past, and the early history of recording are all addressed, as we take a listening trip through consumer culture.

The podcast presents highlights from field recordings from retail stores, accompanied by voice-over narration. Field recordings were captured with a Zoom H4n handy recorder, at Menlo Park Mall in Edison, NJ, Dover Street Market New York, Parsonage Road Target in Edison, NJ, Wal-Mart Route 27 in Edison, NJ, and Dunkin Donuts Route 27 in Edison, NJ. Also includes excerpts from Brian Eno’s “Ambient 1: Music for Airports” (1978) and Disconscious’ “Hologram Plaza” (2013).

James Hodges is a PhD student in media studies at Rutgers University. His research focuses on the relationship between promotional culture and media preservation. James is the cofounder of a media archaeology working group at Rutgers, and he runs a small cassette label for fun.

Featured image by Nicholas Eckhart @Flickr CC BY.

tape reelREWIND! . . .If you liked this post, you may also dig:

Sounding Out! Podcast #6: Spaces of Listening / The Record Shop – Aaron Trammell

Sounding Out! Podcast #18: Listening to the Tuned City Brussels , Day 3: “Ephemeral Atmospheres”– Felicity Ford and Valeria Merlini

Sounding Out! Podcast #28: Off the 60: A Mix-Tape Dedication to Los Angeles – Jennifer Stoever

Sounding Out! Podcast #28: Off the 60: A Mix-Tape Dedication to Los Angeles

CLICK HERE TO DOWNLOAD: Off the 60: A Mix-Tape Dedication to Los Angeles

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Off the 60: A Mix-Tape Dedication to Los Angeles

With the slight return of warmth to the East Coast of the U.S. and Tropics of Meta’s very recent release of Troy Andreas Araiza Kokinis’s fantastic history“’The Sky is Black and the Asphalt Blue’: Placing El Monte in the Early LA Punk Rock Scene” and its accompanying archival project (bring your old flyers and pics down to scan at Bridgetown DIY, 1421 N. Valinda Ave, La Puente, CA on May 3rd from 2-6 pm), we thought it was high time to bring Jennifer Stoever-Ackerman’s LA mixtape Off the 60 into the sunlight for everyone to bump with their windows down.

Off the 60 was initially commissioned as a sonic installation for the re:present L.A. Exhibition at East LA’s Vincent Price Museum from May 3 – July 27, 2012. re:present L.A. was curated by Museum Studies students at Claremont Graduate University (and coordinated by performance artist, scholar, and poet reina alejandra prado saldivar, who wrote about the experience for SO! in 2011). The exhibit sought “to explore, challenge, and depict the multiple representations of Los Angeles that responds to the present social landscapes of city” through both sight and sound.” Click these links for the exhibit’s virtual catalogue and list of participating artists. Both the liner notes and the track listing have been modified slightly from the original for publication here.

Off the 60: Liner Notes

When I began to make this mix-tape that somehow would re-present L.A. in a mere 80 minutes, my enabling fantasy was that I could make a playlist that would be my musical calling card, a sonic Rosetta Stone for “home” that would unravel the complex knot of feelings about L.A. I carry around with me, something I could share with my son, whom I am somewhat reluctantly raising as a New Yorker. You know, a musical study guide so the sounds that raised and shaped me could tell him all the things I just can’t put into words about Los Angeles, namely how much music and place are wrapped together in my memory’s DNA. Therefore, this mix deliberately dates and locates me, enabling, in the words of Ronnie Hudson’s “West Coast Poplock,” the intimate knowledge of “listening to the map.” And—there was more than a little magical thinking involved here—I thought that perhaps if I arranged these songs just so, then the barren Sleepy Hollow landscape of wintry upstate New York would transform itself into the desiccated foothills, dried river beds, and dense strip malls of Southern California. I’d turn a bend and, with a little help from the Go-Go’s and Union 13, 79 would suddenly become “the” 60.

60 freewayAnd thus the title, a tongue-in-cheek reference to J.Lo’s debut album On the 6 (1999), named after the subway line between Manhattan and the Bronx, where she grew up. Off the 60 references the freeway whose red brake lights stretch between Los Angeles and Riverside, my hometown, and the mix is just the right length for a one-way trip, provided there’s no traffic (I told you there was some magical thinking involved here!). The 60 is one of the most heavily trafficked commuter pathways in the country; I know people in Riv who will make this 60-mile drive 5 days a week, 51 weeks a year, for decades (I have also met people in Los Angeles who had never made this trip east, and who used to look askance at my 951 cell number, in the same way that my current 323 area code causes looks of consternation to New Yorkers). For many people coming of age in the Inland Empire, Los Angeles exerts a tidal pull, and we make many trips there before hitting the commuter treadmill—in family cars, in our imaginations, in movies, in books, on school busses and tour busses, in broken-down band vans, in hoopties borrowed from our friend’s uncle that may not make the return trip—and some of us make that 60-mile move West and never really come back, like me. I ended up living on St. Andrews instead of only singing about it.

Riverside 60But you never know, The Riv has a deep hold on people. I closed Off the 60 with a band from Riverside, old friends of mine Chicano punk rockers the Voodoo Glow Skulls, because one second you are going to law school in Queens or Dap-Toning with Sharon Jones and the next you are back, public defending in San Bernardino or married with big fam filling a house by Mt. Rubidoux, respectively. True stories. But I am already taking a detour Off the 60, in the hopes that the music on this mix invites you to do that. Unlike J.Lo’s subway, you can’t stay on the 60 and really get to know Riverside, Los Angeles, or all the many places in between that are intertwined socially, historically, culturally and economically with both cities: Glen Avon. Corona. Chino. Diamond Bar. Rowland Heights. La Puente. Hacienda Heights. El Monte. Montebello. East L.A. Boyle Heights.

A sonic exit ramp of sorts, Off the 60 is a mix-tape in digital format, crafted in the old style: a painstaking arrangement of songs really familiar and much beloved to me, listened to obsessively throughout the process to create fresh transitions that are laden with significance—and of course, car tested L.A.-style until smooth like butter.   For Off the 60, I deliberately picked songs without the aid of Wikipedia or any of the copious L.A song lists, sitting down with just a blank page, my memory, and a sharp pencil (as I hope you can tell by many of the songs, I’m kinda old school) to come up with a set of songs that aren’t necessarily about L.A., but of it. This is a small, symbolic sample of the music that once scored my life in the Southland from the 1970s-the 2000s through the perspective of my current “home away from home” in New York. Now, in what my colleague and homegrrl Karen Tongson (another Riversidean, now turned proud Silver Lake home owner) has poignantly dubbed “remote intimacy” in Relocations (New York University Press, 2011).  And these sounds still make me feel L.A. even though I often feel like I live “a million miles away.” I hope you feel it too.

9297628099_7ab788f0a8_bThe songs on Off the 60 are arranged to speak to each other, sometimes sonically, sometimes thematically, sometimes historically (and occasionally I pull off the trifecta! Listen carefully!). I designed the mix to flow along with the narrative rhythms of a timeless (yet intentionally dated) Saturday in L.A., from waking up with the sound of Friday night still in your ears to basking in the warm afternoon—which can feel so good you almost get knocked off your game—until the purplish-orange twilight descends, with its regret and uncertainty, on into the pulsing promises of the night. Sonically blending vulnerability with hardness—and revealing both where you least expect them—I hope the songs on this mix share an overall L.A. vibe that is more than merely the sum total of the musical parts, a feeling that’s ephemeral and hard to put your finger on, but—paradoxically—one whose resonance lasts.

And because I am a sound/music scholar in addition to a product of the 714 909 951, you’ll get plenty of L.A. music history through this this mix. All the bands featured are based in L.A. or Riverside, except for two artists whom I have awarded honorary Angeleno status: Smokey Robinson and Debbie Deb. Never mind the fact Motown had already moved to L.A. by the time Robinson’s “Crusin’” was released in 1982 and he used to host one of my favorite radio shows on 92.3 in the 2000s, but these two songs have bumped out of so many cars, clubs, backyard parties and Art Leboe sets that both Smoke and Deb own some symbolic real estate in Southern California, at least in my heart.

In putting the work of so many different L.A. artists together, I challenged myself to create a coherent musical feel without placing songs from similar genres, scenes, or time periods right next to each other. I worked hard to create a sense of the diversity of the Los Angeles area without being either gratuitously culture clash-y or post-multiculti Velveeta, but using sound to make palpable both the dissonant tensions and the productive energies of everyday encounters in the city in a way that “represents” without claiming to be representative. Think of Off the 60 as a flash-sample of what you might hear while whiling away a scorching Friday night in traffic, when everybody’s got their windows open, cooling off the outside with their tunes. As a result, you’ll hear classic L.A. musical sounds in conversation—mariachi horns, surf guitar, nasally Val-Speak, fat funky synth, staccato punk growls, metal licks, downtempo samples, polyrhythmic percussion, and that power pop tone that my Vox amp calls “Cali Clean”— calling and responding across genres and decades: re-mixing, recontextualized, distorting, hyperembodying those terribly glamorous L.A. sounds, across this town, our town. Por vida.

Off the 60 is dedicated,  Art Leboe-style,  to my SGV homegirl Melissa Contreras-McGavin for always (even though she lived off the pinche 10 for so long). Mwah.

Off the 60: Track Listing–Click to Jump to Track Description

1. “This Town” by The Go-Go’s
2.
“Del-Tone Rock” by Dick Dale and his Del-Tones
3.
“La Bamba” by The Plugz
4.
“Chango” by Ozomatli
5.
“Unyielding Conditioning” by Fishbone
6.
“Blessings” by The Visionaries and the Beat Junkiez
7.
“All Day Music” by WAR
8.
“Concrete Schoolyard” by Jurassic 5
9.
“Cruisin’” by Smokey Robinson
10.
“It was a Good Day” by Ice Cube
11.
“A Million Miles Away” by The Plimsouls
12.
“I Can’t Stand it Anymore” by Union 13
13.
“Jane Says” by Jane’s Addiction
14.
“Destination Unknown” by Missing Persons
15.
“Look Out Weekend” by Debbie Deb
16.
“West Coast Poplock” by Ronnie Hudson and the Street People
17.
“Make Ya Neck Lock” by Medusa and Feline Science
18.
“This Town” by Ceci Bastida with guest Tim Armstrong
19.
“Here Comes the Sun” by Voodoo Glow Skulls

  1. “This Town” by The Go-Go’s (Beauty and the Beat, I.R.S. Records, 1981): The Go-Go’s were formed in Hollywood in 1978 by members of the early L.A. punk scene and this song reflects their lives in that moment. The Go-Go’s initially consisted of Belinda Carlisle (vocals), Jane Wiedlin (guitar, vocals), Margot Olavarria (bass), and Elissa Bello (drums). Members Charlotte Caffey (guitar), Gina Schock (drums) and Kathy Valentine (bass) were added by 1981, after founding members Margot Olvarria (bass) and Elisa Bello (drums) were fired. The Go-Go’s were the first female band writing and playing their own music to reach number one on the Billboard Charts.   This was the first record I purchased with my own money.

  1. “Del-Tone Rock” by Dick Dale and his Del-Tones (The B-Side of “Let’s Go Trippin’,” Deltone Records, 1961): Dick Dale was born in Boston, Massachusetts and came to Southern California in 1954—Orange County, but we’ll let that slide—where he was one of the innovators in the “Surf Music” genre that many still associate with Los Angeles. “Del-Tone Rock” was the B-Side of the alleged first surf song ever, “Let’s Go Trippin.’” An avid surfer, Dale sought to imitate with his guitar the sounds that he heard while riding waves—and he pushed his equipment to the max while doing so (Fender guitars, another Southern California staple, designed several custom guitars and amps for Dale and still sell a “Dick Dale Custom Shop Stratocaster” model). My dad once got in trouble for sneaking out to see Dick Dale play a “stomp” at the Riverside Armory in 1963. I saw him play at the Dragonfly in 1996.

  1. “La Bamba” by The Plugz (Electrify Me, Plugz Records, 1979): The first rock and roll version of this Mexican folk song was of course recorded by Richie Valens of Pacoima in 1958—he was first known as “Little Richard of the Valley”—and his life and music inspired countless musicians after his untimely death at age 17 in a plane crash in Clearlake, Iowa. The Plugz’ punk-rock version both pays homage to Valens and signifies on the outsiderness of his music career—his manager insisted he whiten his surname by changing it from Valens to Valenzuela, for example. The Plugz formed in 1977 in East Los Angeles and their version of “La Bamba” was recorded with the original line-up: Tito Larriva (lead vocals/guitar), Charlie Quintana (drums), and Barry McBride (bass/backing vocals). The Plugz were staples in the early LA punk rock scene, but they challenged its Hollywood-centricity with a sound that also had firm roots in Chicano garage rock from bands like Thee Midnighters. I first heard The Plugz on the soundtrack to Repo Man, and I can’t tell you how many batteries I went through fastforwarding from “El Clavo y Cruz” to “Hombre Secreto” and back again.

  1. “Chango” by Ozomatli (Ozomatli, Almo Sounds, 1998): Ozomatli was formed in Los Angeles in 1995, after meeting through their affiliation with the Peace and Justice Center. A multiethnic, multiracial collective that, at the time “Chango” was recorded was comprised of Wil-Dog Abers (bassvocals), Ulises Bella (clarinet, guitar, tenor saxophone, vocals), Chali 2na (MC), Cut Chemist (DJ), Raúl Pacheco (guitar, vocals), Justin Porée (percussion), Asdru Sierra (trumpet, vocals) and Jiro Yamaguchi (tabla, cajón, other percussion, vocals), Ozomatli is unabashedly and proudly political through and through: in their lyrics, in their brilliantly miscegenated music—described by Bella and Yamaguchi as “that crazy blend that’s going on between that cacophony of sound” on the streets of L.A. (NPR, 2007)—and in the shows they choose to perform. Ozomatli famously played their cumbia-funk-hip hop-salsa-merengue jams in front of the 2000 Democratic Convention in Downtown Los Angeles and continued to record after the LAPD shut them down and began to shoot rubber bullets, tear gas, and pepper spray paint balls at the peacefully gathered crowd (the footage opens their second record Embrace the Chaos). I included this particular song to also give props to the way in which Ozo has politicized collective dancing—and dances their politics—I have seen them play in many diverse venues from the Cal Plaza to the Warped Tour and I have never seen them fail to move the crowd in more ways than one.

  1. “Unyielding Conditioning” by Fishbone (Give A Monkey A Brain and He’ll Swear He’s the Center of the Universe, 1993): One of the best (and most virtuostically versatile) bands from Southern California, hands down, Fishbone was formed by high school buddies John Norwood Fisher (bass, vocals), Kendall Jones (guitar), Phillip “Fish” Fisher (drums), Angelo Moore (vocals, saxophone, and theremin); “Dirty” Walter A. Kibby II (vocals, trumpet); and Christopher Dowd (keyboards, trombone, vocals) in South Central Los Angeles in 1979. Their coming together is a very 1970s L.A. story; everyone but San Fernando Valley local Moore was bussed from Compton to the overwhelmingly white high school, an 100 mile round trip that you can hear in their music. If you have never heard of this wonderful fusion band—everything from heavy metal to ska to funk to soul to punk—but find that this song sounds teasingly familiar, consider even just the LA-area bands that have stood on these giant’s shoulders: the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Jane’s Addiction, No Doubt, the Skeletones, the Voodoo Glow Skulls, Hepcat. While it has always burned me up that Fishbone has never seen the level of fame that many of these acts have—too bad you can’t pay the rent with respect—I refuse to talk about them as a failure, especially not as an act who has unceasingly worked so hard to portray Los Angeles they live in story and sound. In a recent interview with the Japanese Metropolis, Norwood Fisher stated: “you know we came from gang-related neighborhoods, so for me the violence of punk made sense. There was a big cross-cultural surge, everybody was listening to everything—mod and ska and new wave—everybody could enjoy it, and for a moment it didn’t matter what color you were.” To create that “one moment,” Fishbone has never stopped telling the stories of the numerous moments where it does matter—the tensions embodied in “Unyielding Conditioning”—and that is why I will always love them. By the way, these veteranos still tour so please support Fishbone whenever they come to home to play.

  1. “Blessings” by The Visionaries and the Beat Junkiez (Galleries, Up Above Records 1998). This virtuostic Los Angeles hip hop super group in the tradition of multicultural, multiracial Angeleno musical collectives like WAR and Ozomatli, blends the MC talents of Visionaries 2 Mex, LMNO, Lord Zen, Dannu, Key Kool, and DJ Rhettmatic with the legendary turntablist crew the World Famous Beat Junkies (who were formed in Orange County in 1992 by J-Rocc) and whose members over the years have included Rhettmatic, Curse, Melo-D, D-Styles, Red-Jay, Havik, Tommy Gun, & What?!, Symphony, DJ Babu (also of Dilated Peoples) and Mr. Choc. The cream of the backpack crop, this group was the sound of L.A. underground positivity for myself and so many artists, writers, and musicians I knew in the 2000s. Not to mention that this amazing downtempo beat also reminds me of dancing with my best girls at turn-of-the-millennium late night chill spots all over the city—after long days grinding hard, working toward our Ph.D.s in American Studies and Ethnicity at USC—life-affirming spots like the Little Temple, Carbon, Bounce Rock Skate, the Dub Club, the Root Down, and Nappy at the Roots at the Fais Do Do.

  1. “All Day Music” by WAR (All Day Music, United Artists, 1972) The title song from their first album after changing their name from “Eric Burdon and WAR,” “All Day Music” is a musical manifesto of sorts for the multiethnic 7-piece funk/soul band that came together in 1969 in Long Beach (although the core of the band had been together since 1962 as The Creators). The new line-up was comprised of Howard Scott (guitar, percussion, vocals), B.B. Dickerson (bass, percussion, vocals), Lonnie Jordan (organ, piano, percussion, vocals), Harold Brown (drums, percussion, vocals), Harold Brown (drums, percussion, vocals), Papa Dee Allen (conga, bongos, percussion, vocals), Charles Miller (flute, sax, percussion, vocals), and Lee Oskar (harmonica, percussion, vocals). The gentle strains of this song always take me right back simultaneously to the parks I have loved in in Los Angeles—Pan Pacific Park, Lincoln Park, MacArthur Park, Elysian Park, and Echo Park.

  1. “Concrete Schoolyard” by Jurassic 5 (Jurassic 5, TVT/Interscope, 1998) Jurassic 5 formed like Voltron back in 1994, from the wreckage of two earlier hip hop groups,Rebels of Rhythm and Unity Committee, and was made up MCs Charles Stewart (Chali 2na), Dante Givens (Akil), Courtenay Henderson (Zaakir), Marc Stuart (Mark 7even), and disc jockeys Mark Potsic (DJ Nu-Mark) and Lucas Macfadden (Cut Chemist)—both Cut Chemist and Chali 2na were also in Ozomatli until 2000. J5 cut their teeth at L.A.’s legendary “Good Life,” a South Central health food store owned by B. Hall that became an influential hotbed of rhyme in the early 1990s, hosting a “no cursing” open-mic night that nurtured innovative acts like J5, Medusa, the Pharcyde, and the Freestyle Fellowship. While I didn’t make it to Leimert in time for The Good Life, I loved Thursdays at Project Blowed, the next incarnation of the hip hop workshop held at filmmaker Ben Caldwell’s community arts, multimedia, and performance space, KAOS Network, which he founded in 1990. It is still held every Thursday night at 43rd Place and Leimert Blvd., and will be celebrating its 20th Anniversary on 12/29/14. Follow @Blowdians for the latest.

  1. “Cruisin’” by Smokey Robinson (Where There’s Smoke, Motown/Tamla 1979) Smokey Robinson was already quite famous as a Motown originator by the time he scored this throwback hit at the end of the disco era. Motown had been based in Los Angeles since 1972, and this song—an instant classic in the Lowrider Oldie genre co-written by Robinson and fellow Miracle Marv Taupin—shows just how much L.A. had impacted the label, especially Latino car culture. Now a staple on Art Laboe’s “Killer Oldies,” a long-running Los Angeles radio show famous for playing “Oldies but Goodies” by special request. Give your loved one a musical shout out by calling 800-681-2121 M-F between 7pm-Mid and Sun 6pm-Mid PST.

  1. “It was a Good Day” by Ice Cube (The Predator, Priority Records, 1993) Born O’Shea Jackson in Compton, Ice Cube took on his famous moniker when he joined old school rap group CIA in the mid-1980s (the group sang backing vocals on “Cabbage Patch”—remember that?) and then became a member of legendary hip hop group NWA in 1986. He went solo upon NWA’s break up in 1989 and produced club bangers for a good many years. I almost picked “Bop Gun” for this compilation—I love the George Clinton reference and the way it so perfectly captures the best vibes of the 1990s—but there is a world of LA knowledge embedded in the way in which the minor key sample from the Isley Brothers’ beautiful 1977 hit “Footsteps in the Dark” subtly undercuts Ice Cube’s Southern California fantasy that it could only be this song. Not to mention the long afterlife of “Good Day”: while I usually shy away from gross generalizations, I think I am safe to say that everyone who grew up in the L.A. region in the 1990s has a special love for this song. It is the day by which many of our good days are judged. People have such enduring love for the song that someone at the blog Murk Avenue spent many many hours using context clues to determine once and for all that this legendary good day was in fact, January 20, 1992. While you may have missed its twentieth anniversary, it’s not too late to order up the blimp for the 25th in 2017.

  1. “A Million Miles Away” by The Plimsouls (Everywhere At Once, Geffen, 1983) Formed in Paramount, from the ashes of the power pop/punk trio The Nerves in 1978—who performed the killer original version of “Hanging On The Telephone,” covered more famously by New Yawk’s Blondie—the classic line up includes singer, guitarist and songwriter Peter Case, drummer Louie Ramírez, guitarist Eddie Munoz and bassist Dave Pahoa. Their first break came when Long Beach promoter Stephen Zepeda signed the group to his Beat Records label for a five-song EP called Zero Hour, whose title song received a lot of KROQ airplay. Their second crack at fame occurred when they were hired as the “club band” in the film Valley Girl (1983), which my little sister and I watched over and over again, thanks to ON Television and lax babysitters.As a result, this song was the soundtrack to some of my earliest LA dreamings, and it—plus a very young Nicolas Cage as the rough guy from “over the hill” in Hollywood—gave punk rock boys permanent real estate in my heart.

  1. “I Can’t Stand it Anymore” by Union 13 (East Los Presents. . ., Epitaph Records, 1997) Formed in Boyle Heights in 1992, and influenced by punk rock, hardcore, metal, and their shared Mexican—Central American upbringing, the original lineup on this recording consisted of Edward Escoto on vocals, José Mercado and Ben Sandoval on guitars, Jerry Navarro on bass, and Louie Villareal on drums. I eventually spent so much time with these guys, in vans and in clubs on both sides of the border, that even though I haven’t seen them in years, I still think of Union 13 like family—even more so after they played a show in my backyard in Riverside and they got into a friendly familial brawl in the front. 

  1. “Jane Says” by Jane’s Addiction (Nothing’s Shocking, Triple XXX Records, 1988): This band came together in Venice in 1985 out of the remains of Psi-Com, the first LA-area band of Queens transplant Perry Farrell (government name Peretz Bernstein) and included Dave Navarro (guitarist), Eric Avery (bass), and Stephen Perkins (drums). Both this song and the band were named after the struggles of Farrell’s drug addicted roommate, Jane Bainter, whom he lived with on Wilton Street in Hollywood in the early days of the band’s history. My first history with this song begins with high school subjection coupled with a lustful yearning for the sound of the bohemian unknown; I remember my best friend was almost suspended for wearing a Nothing’s Shocking T-Shirt to school because it featured plaster casts of naked women with their hair on fire—“but the female body is beautiful” I remember her saying, as she reluctantly turned the shirt inside out. The second is of moving to Los Angeles and living in Koreatown, on the fabled St. Andrews street mentioned in the song, and though the intensity of my feeling sfor this band had long since faded, “Jane Says” would pop into my head at least once a day as I headed out to hit the red line, find a coffee shop, walk past the Wiltern on my way to the Sav-on, or grab some Pho 2000 in the middle of the night. And I would stop, look up at the gently waving palm fronds, and remember that no matter what was going on in my life—high drama, money struggles, the mundanity of getting older—“at least I live in Los Angeles.”

  1. “Destination Unknown” by Missing Persons (Spring Session M, Capitol Records, 1982) Missing Persons, a new wave staple on the radio and MTV in its infancy, were founded in 1980 in Los Angeles by Warren Cuccurullo (guitar), Dale Bozzio (vocalist), Terry Bozzio (drummer) and later Patrick O’Hearn (bass) and Chuck Wild (keyboard). While this song is much lesser known that “Walking in L.A.”—which I still get asked about occasionally out here on the East Coast. . .”is it true?” . . .um, once and for all, “NO!”—I think it really captures a particular alternative New Wave sonic alterity that scholar, poet, and Highland Park native Wanda Alarcon describes in an SO! post entitled “Last Night a DJ Saved My Life” as having told her “there were options out there. . .and that was all I needed to survive—to save my queer soul.” Sometimes not knowing your destination can be truly liberatory.

  1. “Look Out Weekend” by Debbie Deb (single on Jam Packed Records, 1984) While the bad ass Deborah Claire Wesoff-Kowalski (known of course as Debbie Deb) was born in Brooklyn and raised in Miami, she is an honorary Angelena as far as I am concerned. Her music was the soundtrack to many an Aqua Net set as my friends and I teased our bangs to untold heights to hit Roller City 2001, or later to attempt to rule the dance floor (and work out our Riverside-ness) at Hollywood’s Florentine Gardens—a basketball gym-sized dance floor replete with go-go dancers, a taco bar on the patio, a dress-to-impress crowd and a broad spectrum of ground effects in the parking lot. We loved it so much we claimed the sound of Miami freestyle as “L.A. Disco.” To this day, when I throw on Deb at a party, I can’t help but smell Drakkar Noir and the scent of burning eyeliner pencils—well, how do you soften it to make your Cleopatra-eyes?. Then, as now, I used Deb’s pounding beat, synth stabs, and tough girl vocals to armor myself for life’s increasing challenges—to transform “Oh, what now?” into that world-famous and oh-so-necessary L.A. challenge “So now what?” And I thank her profusely for that.

  1. “West Coast Poplock” by Ronnie Hudson and the Street People (Single on HouseJam Records, 1982) In this multi-layered song by early Los Angeles B-Boys, Ronnie Hudson and the Street People, you can hear the echoes of earlier hits—lyrical shout outs to “Rapper’s Delight” by The Sugar Gang (1979) and Zapp and Roger’s “So Ruff, So Tuff” (1981) as well as a killer hook borrowed from Booker T. and the M.G.’s “Bootleg” (1965)—and some really excellent futureshocks of the many L.A. acts to later sample it in songs like Mixmaster Spade and the Compton Posse’s “Genius is Back” (1988), N.W.A.’s “Straight Outta Compton” (1988), Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg’s “Nuthin’ But a G Thang” (1992), and Tupac and Dr. Dre’s much beloved monster hit “California Love” (1994). But you can also listen for the way its soundscape takes you back to the days when pop-locking ruled the scene so hard that Ronnie Hudson made a special version called “East Coast Poplock” to take the moves created by Don Campbell, a commercial art student at L.A. Trade Tech, all the way to the other coast.

  1. “Make Ya Neck Lock” by Medusa and Feline Science (Undaground Crewed, Project Blowed, 2002). Another amazing fusion artist who should not be an LA-area secret, Medusa (also known as Baby NeNe, Triple Kahlua, Sister Monet, Medusa, Microfro, and that “cool-playa-pimp nigga Sean”)began her long Los Angeles reign as a 16 year old pop-locker with the Groove-Atrons and honed her rhyme talents at The Good Life Café (and later Project Blowed) in Leimert Park, along with Freestyle Fellowship,Yo Yo, J5 and the Pharcyde. Medusa, along with her live back-up band and hip hop crew Feline Science—which includes a DJ, drummer, bassist, keyboard, percussionist, guitar and background singers—has reigned supreme on the L.A. club circuit for many years, most famously transforming the Fais Do-Do on West Adams into her own personal queendom called “Nappy at the Roots”—a fecund female and queer-friendly performance space for innovative acts that fused musics from across the city like Quetzal, Wozani, and Burning Spear—where she always brought down the house. I can vouch—I was a devoted subject for all of the years I lived in L.A.

  1. “This Town” by Ceci Bastida with guest Tim Armstrong (Veo La Marea, EMI, 2008). Ceci Bastida has been an integral part of the transborder music culture circulating between Tijuana and Los Angeles since age 15, when she joined what would become one of the most classic Rock en Español bands, Tijuana NO!, as a singer, keyboardist and songwriter. While with TN!, Ceci collaborated with bands like Fishbone and Manu Chao. After leaving the band in 2000, she played with Julieta Venegas’s band for seven years, whereupon she started her solo turn, from which this track is taken, a bi-lingual, multi-genre revisioning of the Go-Go’s 1980s Valley soundscape, one that reminds listeners that the founder of the Go-Go’s was actually Chicana punk rocker Margot Olvarria (who was eventually kicked out of the group for refusing to conform to the band’s shift from punk aggression to power pop harmonies). I’ll forgive her the guesting by Rancid’s Tim Armstrong, because I love this song so much, especially its movements from English to Spanish to Spanglish, its deft juxtapositions of sounds and musical styles, and the way it manages to be celebratory and confrontational all at once. It’s might be our town, but it’s still “so ruff, so tuff out here, baby.”

  1. “Here Comes the Sun” by Voodoo Glow Skulls (Who Is This Is?, Dr. Strange Records, 1994) Founded in La Sierra (an unincorporated area in Riverside County), Inland Empire Chicano punk-ska-metal band the Voodoo Glow Skulls have been at it since 1989. The “classic” line-up has a trio of brothers at its heart: Frank Casillas (Vocals), Eddie Casillas (Guitar) and Jorge Casillas (bass), with a pulse provided by Jerry O’Neill (drums), and the unique warped mariachi-1950s rock bop horn sounds provided by Joe McNally (trumpet), Joey Hernandez (sax), and Brodie Johnson (trombone). Confession: I have known Joe since elementary school and Brodie since he was a high school metal head and you can still read their bio I wrote for Epitaph 1996 here (and they say the Internet is ephemeral!). Even though I have some personal rough water under the bridge where VGS is concerned—an ex, and that’s all I am gonna say—I haven’t stopped loving this song, a speeded-up Beatles cover that embodies the tensions, excitement, danger, and hope in California’s eternal promise of new beginnings.

Jennifer Stoever is co-founder and Editor-in-Chief  for Sounding Out! She teaches African American literature and sound studies at Binghamton University and was a former Fellow at the Society for the Humanities at Cornell University (2011-2012). You can catch her full CV at http://jenniferstoever.com/

Featured image borrowed from Flickr user Daniel Orth.

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