Issue 2/2001 - Net section

Around the World? Around the World!

Global Electronica between Exploitation of Difference and Cultural Democratization

Christian Höller

The return of the local: One of the most interesting and paradoxical aspects of recent electronic culture is that it seems to play a part in producing new forms of local reference, or even local »anchoring.« This seems paradoxical because techno and its now rampant subgenres were at first associated with a specific lack of location: driven by the spirit of a utopian breaking-down of borders or the forward-looking surmounting of material limits in the here and now, this music was sustained from the start by an ominous global consciousness. This consciousness could be coded in a manner that was esoteric (in the form of a holistic world spirit), romantically inclusive (as a rejection of all ideas of exclusion) or simply pragmatic (as an accompanying sound to the unstoppable process of globalization). Today, however, geographic ties can be observed in many places, even if only as attributions of certain »sound signatures« (Detroit techno, Cologne minimal, Berlin dub, etc.). Such »localizations« also seem paradoxical because technical conditions of production have long been at a stage of mobility that makes locational ties seem anachronistic. The fact that sound software is increasingly available and user-friendly and that the infrastructural transfer of pieces of music via the internet has become easier indicates that the connection of certain sounds with specific locations has more to do with image marketing or the marketable aura of so-called »cool places« than with the logistical necessity of producing in one particular place. And because the most modern form of music production (DJs, Laptop users) and reception (ravers, clubgoers) is normally more a matter of ticking off places on an imaginary map of the world on a whirlwind tour than of developing lasting ties, the idea of electronic culture being bound to a particular location, or of its possessing any particular local exclusivity, seems altogether rather far-fetched.

The myth of geographic exclusivity is taken ad absurdum today on another level as well. Although there once were specific places from which individual sound signatures emanated, such as Philadelphia for the early disco sound, Chicago for early house music, London for drum and bass, it is not particularly astonishing that these production locations were almost all in the Anglo-American field. After all, the USA and Great Britain were considered as the only lands producing pop culture - while criminally disregarding their (from a »realpolitical« viewpoint) often rather unglamorous Afro-diasporic and »Black Atlantic« genealogies1. They were able to market their off-the-peg wares world-wide and thus, for the short term, give the impression of a hegemonial pop uniformity. To what extent this sprawling distribution itself brought about a wide variety of local reactions and productive reuse is something that can only be gradually and retrospectively gauged in the light of the growing interest in global pop culture. Here, it would be wrong to speak of a global pop culture uniformly orientated towards the USA and the West. »There is no global culture,« says Meaghan Morris, for instance, »only concrete contexts into which global products enter in a very specific way« 2, and gives the examples of Italian rap, Samoa rap, Maori rap, White Boy rap, Canberra rap, African reappropriations of rap, and so on and so forth. This does not at all mean denying the specific context in which hip-hop arose - New York South Bronx at the beginning of the seventies - but it does mean combatting the idea that a musical style is anchored in this context for its entire »life« and therefore also unable to go through a series of transformations and local reuse unconnected with this context. And furthermore: if a music product from Vienna or Helsinki - even if they have no clearly discernable Anglo-American model - emerges in international techno culture today, it is no longer necessary to ask for long where these places are to be found on the pop map. The same has been the case for even longer with São Paulo or Lagos, recently also with Buenos Aires and Tijuana, and in the foreseeable future also with Shanghai and Manila.

[b]Transfers, today and yesterday[/b]

Return of the local, and how it makes itself apparent despite all the »immaterialization« of culture: the relationships between production, consumption, identity, and local reference seem to have become more variable within techno culture than they were in the bipolar model of global pop reception that dominated for a long time. Bipolar model means the coupling of (mythical and excessive) production in an Anglo-American center and the (rather more down-to-earth) reception on the passive peripheries of this imperium. As has already been mentioned, a double process of undermining this extensive and - for a long time - very rigid geography and the concomitant assignment of locality is taking place within electronic culture. Ideational removal of boundaries and stronger infrastructural mobility are the main factors of this process; furthermore, most of the localities referred to in the field of electronica, whether contextually, visually, or as regards design, are abstracted mechanical cycles or non-locations from the science fiction field. Underneath this utopian matrix - the imaginary provision of a (non-) location where there is no exclusion, but a spirit of universal togetherness and peace - multilayered processes are in action creating attachments to locations. In the same way that, for instance, »Detroit« and the techno music created there in the early nineties gradually had a musical influence on the Berlin scene and spread from there all over Germany before being partly transferred back to the USA today, parts of the Viennese electronica scene have radiated as far as Tokyo, where they, in return, have new inputs fed into them.

This brings a completely new cartography of world-wide techno-cultural transfers into view. It differs clearly both from the above-mentioned classical bipolar model (productive English-speaking centers - passive, consuming periphery), and the world music paradigm, which gradually emerged in the eighties. As Timothy Taylor explains in his study »Global Pop,« the spread of so-called »world music« was a product not only of the capitalistic utilization of yet untouched, »unspoiled« identities in the pop-culturally satiated West, but also, to a great a extent, of changed geo-political situations.3 Since the start of non-Western migration to Western centers, social relationships and identities have been the subject of constant querying and reformulation, a process which is not least carried out via musical preferences and corresponding productions. For instance, West Indian immigrants to Great Britain had imported their own music (bluebeat, ska, reggae) long before the world music boom in the nineties. This music was picked up by music companies such as Chris Blackwell's Island label, and put onto the international market. The massive success of this »locally anchored,« yet already diasporic musical style of the Jamaican Rastafarians paved the way for a specific marketing of authenticity, and often resistance4. It spread from one continent to another, one scene to another: from Afro beat, which was also created transatlantically - between Lagos and Los Angeles, so to speak -, raï and bhangra to a constant stream of newly discovered Latino styles, not to mention the exponential growth of fusions between every possible world-music style. This inscribed geography centrally and irreplaceably into the music, among other things as a consumer-friendly distinguishing feature, without this at all taking account of the complex genealogies of these styles. Soon, the well-meaning rain-forest rescuers turned up ? and began having all sorts of still-undiscovered indigenous musicians rescue the threatened global culture in their name.

[b]The removal of hierarchies[/b]

The transfers of world music ran mostly in one direction: from a seemingly authentic and unspoiled »third-world culture,« which was thus defined territorially and ethnically, 5 into the western metropolises, where there seems to be an unquenchable thirst for new phenomena with their origin »somewhere else.« The fact that the route of these ethno-transfers was mostly accompanied by the lived geographies of streams of migrants was seldom perceived, but it could not ever be completely abstracted from such an enlarged musical socialization. The fact that the »places of origin« of the inexhaustible world music reservoir were mostly themselves marked by other influences, appropriations and translations was, however, ignored as much as benefited the mythos of there being local pockets of resistance against a corrupt West. Brazilian Tropicália groups like Os Mutantes (1968-1971) had always produced a mixture of English-America psychedelia, garage rock, futuristic electronica effects, Brazilian samba and bossa nova influences anyway, in addition to cryptic protest songs aimed at the dictatorship.6 In the sixties, this mixture made them seem like rootless, spaced-out visionaries, while in recent times it has made them appear to be locally bound (because they were pervaded by the diasporic, anthropophagic spirit of Tropicálismo)7 representatives of a specific culture. Musicians like Beck, Stereolab or Sean Lennon see Os Mutantes as the decisive precursors of their own style, precisely because they gave an example of how to build bridges between the »first« and the »third« world. Nonetheless, it took 30 good years for the complexity of tropical psychedelia to gain broad Western recognition, a fact which once more evokes the phantom of unilateral transfer.

When trying to assess today's musical transfers as a whole, one has to conclude that this picture of one-sided transfer has changed radically. Styles like punk or hardcore, once clearly deemed »Western,« are enjoying undiminished popularity in non-Western scenes, such as São Paulo oder Mexico City, for example; indeed, they often develop a form of almost reactionary, conservative persistence.8 In return, more and more »non-Western« electronica amalgams are streaming back to the places where techno culture originated. »Electronic Music from Buenos Aires« was the name of a compilation initiated by Riley Reinhold and Jacqueline Klein, both from Cologne, a good two years ago. It gave an overview of the techno scene in the Argentinean capital. The music of Gustavo Lamas, Fantasias Animades or Leo García can by no means be reduced to any sort of specific Argentinean local color. It plays around with a touch of local atmosphere, but, in the final analysis, takes up the established sound signatures from Cologne and Berlin. Just as a specific geographically encoded sound - no matter whether this has to do with large geographical units (Asia) or individual production locations (Detroit) - can be called up and used in any location desired, seemingly distinctive local phenomena can be reimported into the West without being exposed to the world music ethnicizations that have been usual up to now. All of a sudden, former non-pop cities like Buenos Aires or Istanbul can pop up on the map, because the scenes there have long ago managed to connect up to the places perceived as centers in the context of an increasingly permeable techno culture. At the same time, the permanent demand for new, »unused« and fresh production locations has been accelerating the emergence of peripheral scenes that are equal in every way to the old metropolises as far as image and production are concerned, and even hold them up an imagined mirror of urban specificity. The sound and the city - this pair is immediately put into circulation as a »global tool« whose principal effect is to remove hierarchies, but in the end plays with an idea of localization that does not correspond to the nature of electronic culture in any way - except as a compensation for loss of location.

[b]The democratic exploitation of difference[/b]

The exchange between the »first« and »third« worlds would seem to gain new impetus within this changed geography. However easy it is to call up and reproduce locally encoded sounds in almost any place in the world, it is equally necessary to definitively assume that specific territorial characteristics (whether ethnic coloring or knowledge of tradition) are always influenced, or even partly created, from the outside. There is, therefore, no binary model between productive metropolises and imitating peripheries, but interpenetration: Kingston in Berlin, Cologne in Buenos Aires, Dehli in London, and so forth. As a whole, the global electronica culture thus seems to be involved in a process that runs in opposite directions: on the one hand there are the local differences, even if these are only imaginary, from which the largely utopian global techno culture draws its main sustenance; and on the other, there are the many inequalities and differences in timing constantly produced within a mixture that on the surface seems quite uniform. Some scenes can be better put into circulation when they have an aura of distinctive individuality (geographical, visual, or in their sound). On the other hand, this seeming individuality is itself based on certain, often non-corporative9 interactions that always include outside factors: How well is a location, a scene, bound into larger contexts? How quickly does the (unofficial) exchange with other centers function? How effectively can it emerge from the confines of location and lock onto the »informal, globalized, subcultural universe« 10?

One of the most recent examples of such an emergence occurred in the Mexican border city of Tijuana. Ten years ago a musical development began there which, though at first noticed only locally, in recent times has gained international recognition: »nortec.« An association of various DJs and musicians11 calling itself a collective began to mix elements of traditional music from the north of Mexico (Norteño) with techno beats and ambient textures, inspired by European electronica such as Kraftwerk, Yello or Burger/Ink. It achieved a success that went beyond one of the best-guarded borders in the world. Recently, Chris Blackwell's latest enterprise, called Palm Pictures in keeping with its style, has begun putting the »nortec« collective on the international pop map. Three aspects make »nortec« particularly interesting with regard to the global marketing of difference. Firstly, there is the self-confident affirmation of location, which is particularly surprising in an economically and touristically exploited outpost of the West. »Tijuana is no longer just the place where those wanting to immigrate to the USA get stuck,« says Raul Cardenas, head of the Torolab design studios associated with »nortec.« »We are the first generation that has made the conscious decision to remain here and react to the surroundings.«12 Furthermore, the scene does not use just the image and atmosphere of the border town, but also really adopts musical elements (tuba, basses, march rhythms) of the dominant local music. All in all, it is becoming apparent that the difference from the West is not functionalized here as something seductively exotic, but used in a dialogic process based in a concrete here and now. A form of electronic interaction thus becomes visible (or audible) that does not deny its place of origin, but also does not take it as an absolute and insuperable frame of existence. The »Isle of the Blessed« may be beyond the border, but one can create the palm pictures oneself as well, even if only on the computer.


Translated by Tim Jones


1 Cf. Paul Gilroy: The Black Atlantic. Modernity and Double Consciousness. London 1993, George Lipsitz: Dangerous Crossroads. Popular Music, Postmodernism and the Poetics of Place. London/New York 1994 and Ingrid Monson (Ed.): The African Diaspora. A Musical Perspective. New York, London 2000.

2 »Es gibt keine Globalkultur«. In: springerin (Ed.): Widerstände. Kunst - Cultural Studies - Neue Medien. Vienna, Bozen 1999, p. 184.

3 Global Pop. World Music, World Markets. New York, London 1997.

4 Cf. ibid, p. 21 ff.

5 Cf. Keith Negus: Music Genres and Corporate Cultures. London, New York 1999, p. 164 ff.

6 Vgl. John J. Harvey: Cannibals, Mutants, and Hipsters: The Tropicalist Revival. In: Charles A. Perrone & Christopher Dunn (Ed.): Brazilian Popular Music & Globalization. Gainesville 2001, p. 106 ff.

7 Cf. Christopher Dunn: Tropicália, Counterculture, and the Diasporic Imagination in Brazil. In: Perrone/Dunn, p. 72 ff.

8 Cf. Amardeep Singh: Live, Streaming Subculture. Die Globalisierung von Punk. In: springerin 3 (2000), p. 24ff..

9 Keith Negus speaks of a »cultural industry of enthusiasts, fans and musicians« (Negus 1999, p. 171).

10 Pacho: Wo die Blaskapelle den Synthesizer trifft. In: Neue Zürcher Zeitung, 13 March 2001, p. 66.

11 ,

12 Melissa Sattley: The Bastard Child of Norteño and Electronica, Nortec, »The Future of Mexican Music«. In: The Austin Chronicle, 3 November 2000,