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Off Key: Gimme Noise

 by Ben Horowitz
 published on Thursday, March 23, 2006

Horowitz/issues/arts/696311
Horowitz
 

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Sometimes, when I consider the sheer number of songs that exist (even within my own record collection), I start to wonder about the first man or woman to play an instrument. What possessed them to do it? Was it a hot date or a lucky day on the hunt?

These days, musicians seem to pick up their guitar, or sit down at their piano, or do whatever it is one does when playing the flute, for an infinite number of reasons.

There's the shaggy-haired frat brother who showed me how to play Pennywise's "Bro-hymn" outside of PV East my freshman year, who wants to score some girls' telephone numbers.

There are the legions of auditioners for "American Idol" who obviously want their shot at mass popularity, with all of its profits and losses.

And then there are the weird but friendly dudes on Hayden Lawn who seem to be content to just sit back and pluck away, lost in simple harmonies and acid flashbacks.

Ultimately, though, where does our music come from? What led our peculiar species to begin to craft songs out of the ether?

In a recent interview with The Believer magazine, Angelique Kidjo, a genre-bending musician from Africa, spoke about this very question.

"Singing comes before speaking," she says in the interview. "The first human being on this planet, even before he or she was able to speak, was surrounded by music. The sound of the birds is music because you can put notes to it--same with the wind in the trees."

She goes on to say that the earliest humans most likely mimicked these noises before they formed a language. Listening to Kidjo's music, you believe her. Born in a small town in Benin, a country in western Africa, her music showcases a dizzying array of influences, from traditional African rhythms to bits that sound like they could've been lifted from a Madonna song from the 80s.

The uplifting feeling you get after listening to a song by Kidjo leads you to think of things like wind in the trees and crashing ocean waves.

When I think of the sounds we hear in our society, however, nature is one of the last things I am reminded of. Where in our music do we hear the angry buzz of traffic, the honking of horns and the shouting of commuters? Where do we hear the constant telephone ringing, the endless commercials or the static of fading radio stations? Where do we hear the machine gun fire and the rolling tanks from the evening news?

If Kidjo is right, the majority of songs that rise to the top of the charts don't imitate much that isn't mechanical. The beats are perfectly laid out, the vocals are tweaked into tune with recording programming and the instruments sound better than they ever could in a live environment.

Maybe the coldness of the recordings that populate the video countdowns is a result of the fact that they do imitate the environment we grew up in. Artists choose to give their songs technical perfection rather than a more organic existence.

I can't help preferring music that embraces the chaos of life in the United States, for all its beauty and ugliness. I'd rather hear four minutes of spastic, honest distortion than four minutes of drivel telling me to look on the bright side of things or focus less on the world and more on broken hearts.

Or maybe Kidjo is wrong, and as some of my fan mail suggests, being "pretentious" by preferring artists who aren't afraid to sound like themselves is just another, more subtle way of trying to get into girls' pants.

Either way you look at it, more people should listen to Angelique Kidjo.

Reach the reporter at benjamin.horowitz@asu.edu.



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