Sunday, April 17, 2011

A reflection on sampling and exorcising cultural ghosts

Just today, I came across the music of Cyrus Shahrad, AKA Hiatus via when you motor away blog. "...Shahrad's family fled Iran at the time of the revolution, and he was raised in the Brixton neighborhood of London. He has worked as a journalist as well as as a musician...In a trip to Iran in the last decade while on assignment for the Sunday Times of London, Shahrad discovered his father's old music collection in his grandmother's house. He started experimenting with mixing the music that reflected his London experiences with his father's middle eastern music. The result is his album Ghost Notes..." The video below is the track "Insurrection" about the Brixton race riots in the early '80s, using vocals from reggae poet Linton Kwesi Johnson"

Perhaps culturally, sampling has become a tool that satiates the wandering minds of music lovers all over the world, and have been pushing the idea of what's considered music over the past 30 years. When bands like the Rolling Stones steal from black American blues artists to kick start their initial career, they've gotten away with it, along with countless other white musicians at the time. Which you can argue it was obviously re-contexualized for a different group of audience, and pushed the idea of black music into mainstream America. In which later paved way to numerous black artist's musical careers on a larger mainstream scale. Fast forward to the sampling age, the Stones hypocritical lawsuit against the Verve's Bittersweet Symphony over a sample of theirs will serve as a foundation of our discussion.

The topic of interest here today, is the ethics of sampling and it's surprising attributes as a cultural mirror that reflects not only popular culture, but historically of our society as a whole. Right off the bat, being a first generation immigrant myself (at the age of 8), the meaning of the phantom country we're suppose to hold alliance to, where we come from, along with the voices of our fathers drilling into our heads reminding us of who and what we are, conflicts with the fact that we were raised an ocean apart amidst completely different cultural customs and political climate. We switch between identities and adjust our attitude depending on the environment we're in.

We adapt, and assimilate. The passage of time forms new molds of existence. Layers upon layers of cultural reference are laid onto us to guide us through the act of co-existing 2 worlds, mentally and physically. A dichotomy in nature.

As the music world progresses, certain people still become extremely aggravated towards a 30+ year old music technology which was first widely introduced in the late 70's when hip hop was born. Prior to that in Jamaica, there were DJ's that "talk sing" over pre-existing records at their live shows, and even prior to that the Chamberlin was made in the US which later served as a precursor for the mellotron, and had recorded and sampled drum loops of live drummers, designed to be at your disposal and usage at the reach of your fingertips; rhythm mates, they were called. Overall, the act of sampling covers an array of styles and usage, along with personal motivation and intent, but mostly it conveys "what was then" into an alternative universe of "what is now" culturally, politically, and personally. Some people call sampling a throw back, but if you look at the logistic side in my case, someone like me couldn't have existed in that time, whether racially accepted or musically. So why would I want to be apart of a cultural throw back that constituted the Chinese exclusion act? Amongst other fucked up shit that I don't want to get side tracked into.

The context of badlands in itself is an abstract thought, despite the personal reasons behind making the album. It was an attempt to try and understand my father as a young man, before his youthful dreams perished with the tides of time, not to mention immigration complications of assimilating into Taiwan. Which was politically in turmoil at the time after the Nationalists fled out of China due to their defeat against Mao's Communists. To his credit, which he never once bitched about, this information was never relayed back to me until I pried these stories out of my uncle and mother in recent years. The attempt to exorcise my father's youth, this ghost of an idea, which was projected onto my existence growing up ("art can never put food on the table") became a reconciliation, a dialogue from son to father. As I play my father's music in ways that can only have been done in this age, I channel in the physical image of his youth, performing across North America. The idea of that in itself would've been impossible during his time due to the aforementioned issues above.

Across the Atlantic there is a different story of a man making sense of his father's music collection, digesting and presenting past cultural music in concoction through modern technology, exorcising another ghost that was left behind. Perhaps then, the ghost will finally leave in peace, or perhaps its spirit now coexists with the record.

As we ask ourselves what makes a man, we come into terms with our own adulthood, drifting along this sea of cultural and history madness of bad blood.

Our legal existence here without acute racism, is progress. Your reaction to the kind of work presented, is a reflection of where we are as a society, as a whole.

*UPDATE April 20th, 2011

For more info on Asian / Pacific Islander immigration stories in North America check out this blog:


  1. Hey Alex,

    Wonderful post and lots to think about here. As a first gen immigrant myself the passages about assimilating layers of culture hit close to home but i've never thought of this within the lens of sampling. For myself, you've also added another dimension to Badlands and your performances which i'd never considered.

  2. johan:
    thanks johan. I think ultimately badlands is of many contradictions, and probably conceptually the most complex release I've done to date. Which is why its important to me. Exorcising ghosts that linger around us in a different dimension (hence the cover art) I always believed music has a sense of supernatural connotation to them, and I was glad to be able to explore that aspect on this record.