The Best Bazombo Trance Band this Side of Kinshasa
or the rest of 2005, Stylus will be presenting a series of two to three essays each month in the Pop Playground section centered around an idea or theme related to music. These questions will be open-ended, allowing each writer to make of the subject what they will and to explore it more fully than they might do in a normal review or feature. This month: Tokenism.
The simmering wake of the everlasting “rockism” debacle is decidedly ugly, a trash heap of paralyzed Shins-lovers and joyful praise overwhelmed by the stink of humiliation, a bunch of frightened puffs smoked out of their blissful holes. We’re all skulking around avoiding the blacklist in our silly ways: “The new Madonna record is great, don’t be such a guitar-sniffing douchebag, dude”; “Your White Narrative is overrated, put that Hold Steady record down and try this sizzurp!”; “Sao Paolo is to 2005 what Chicago was to 1993 (they even look like Jim O’Rourke, just less pale).” Tokenism is a bit of a byproduct of rockism’s notion of “narrow” listening, a crap tonic we got talked into by a snake oil salesman; a fake solution. Usually, when people use the word, it’s to suggest an effort to prop up something as purely symbolic of a particular idea, genre, or style: “Junior Boys made my Top 10 last year; see, I listen to dance music, too.”
About a year ago, this topic blossomed in my brain in part as a result of musings on the subject from the mighty mind of John Darnielle. What strikes me now, amidst all my revised opinions on the subject, is the directness of the title itself—tokenism, in its worst iterations, leads to pure discontinuity. Using my aforementioned example, you’d be straight wrong if you thought that Junior Boys was truly representative of most dance music in 2004, or if Kano’s Home Sweet Home was a thorough “grime” record (there are plenty of people to educate, shame, infuriate, then redeem you in that order over at Dissensus, if you’re so inclined).
The crux of discontinuity is that it leads to ignorance. In Darnielle’s study, he uses the example of indie press heaping praise on Mastodon’s Leviathan as “metal for our kinda people” while basically ignoring Pig Destroyer’s Terrifyer. The records were similar enough both in style and quality that the attention to one seemed almost arbitrary. (Incidentally, we here at Stylus missed the Pig Destroyer record, but didn’t love Leviathan anyway, go figure.) This discontinuity in the realm of taste seems questionable enough, but it’s when you float into the unsettling area of factual discontinuity that tokenism gets really ugly.
Case: Konono No. 1’s dazzling Congotronics 1 album, the first “real” “studio” recording by a thirty year-old Congolese human sound system, a buzzing tower of hypnotic polyrhythm housing a web of aural shrapnel. Released in America earlier this year, the record started a buzz not only for its sheer uniqueness, but for the interesting, if somewhat superficial similarities to U.S. experimental and noise music. (I should note that I saw the band live last week and my suspicions were reinforced: the stylistic kinship is present, but almost completely coincidental, i.e. a product of means rather than intent, but an interesting coincidence nevertheless.) Now, when the Konono album came out, a funny phrase kept popping up, first on the press release, then in reviews: “Bazombo trance music.” Within days, Konono became everyone’s favorite token Bazombo trance band. Still, I realized that no amount of Googling would give me any insight into what in the fuck people were talking about when they used the phrase—almost every instance of it came right out of a review or mention of the album itself.
I’m not railing on PR people here, but what I am saying is that tokenism’s dark side is to completely erase the nuances of any genre or sub-style—I don’t know if the Mastodon and Pig Destroyer records are really representative of their genre; at least I can learn more if I want to, but “Bazombo trance music”? Nothing.
Really though, when you get down to it, “tokenism” is a dirty word with a kind heart hidden inside it, in the same way that “pornography” contains a streak of sexual openness that would probably do us all a little good after all (us, the Music Lovers). Let me try to pave the road to redemption.
I think Darnielle has a salient point in that making “tokenistic” choices can often appear arbitrary, uneducated, and condescending, insofar as the choice is taken to be representative of a particular minority that we just must dignify to hold our relevance without actually elevating it to the point of “normalcy,” i.e. that “grime” will always be segregated as “grime” rather than just “music,” a feat that took hip-hop over a decade to achieve in the pop realm (and let’s not forget that the earliest rock & roll-type hybrids were called “race records” before they were just like most other sounds on the airwaves).
On “More Gangsta Music” from Cam’ron’s Purple Haze (ironically, an album with its own type of tokenistic status amongst indie kids), Juelz Santana raps goofy: “it’s like the whole Byrd Gang’s in here, like Kurt Cobain was here.” I’m sorry, what? Okay, well, Kurt Cobain’s a legend; at least in 2005 he is. In 1991, Nevermind was the album that got kids wearing flannel and claiming their favorite music was grunge; it was probably their first and best exposure to the genre, it was a token. You think Dipset rides around blasting “Touch Me I’m Sick” or, shit, TAD? You think Jim Jones went out and bought The Raincoats or a Shaggs album because Kurt talked about them in interviews? I kinda doubt it.
And that’s just fine; Nirvana broadened the entire musical scope for just about everyone that heard them. And one person’s token is another person’s gateway. For everyone that heard Boy In Da Corner and thought “This grime thing is way crazy, I’ll get back to guitar rock now, thanks,” there were plenty of people that delved deeper into the genre, explored different producers and MCs styles, and developed an appreciation and knowledge beyond the “obvious” picks.
I’m not saying it always happens, but that’s the potential, and that’s why I chafe when people toss around the idea of tokenism as inherently bad. Take a token not as a resting place, but as a simple beginning. As you dig deeper, what once was a token pick might become a classic or even a smashed idol. There’s no shame in needing a place to start as long as you keep moving. Someday, you might even find a new favorite Bazombo trance band.