ZOO CITY: ON SLOTH, AUTOTUNE, & AFRICAN NOIR

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A few days ago I came across the first mention of Auto-Tune I’ve seen in fiction: Lauren Beukes’ 2010 novel, Zoo City. It’s weird noir, set in contemporary Johannesburg, featuring an ex-junkie protagonist named Zinzi December and her magic sloth. The unconvential pair is caught in a web of intrigue involving murder, 419 email scams, and a missing kwaito/afropop teen star. In short, it sounds like a book specifically engineered for my peer group… There’s even a corresponding soundtrack album “of kwaito and electronica… painstakingly put together by African Dope’s Honeyb to evoke the feel of Lauren Beukes’ new novel.” Each page drips with local references (including a passing mention of Spoek Mathambo); this book must read quite differently to those familiar with Jo’burg and the pop culture landscapes of South Africa.

A member of the Mudd Up Book Clubb recommended it to me. Zoo City is a fast read, cynical and sassy, reminiscent of a streetwise Charles Stross, and it makes me think of that masterpiece of weird-noir-with-animals, Jonathan Lethem’s incredible Gun, With Occasional Music.

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(The difference between Zoo City‘s two covers is striking: from stark animals-and-architecture as typeface to cartoon Lauryn Hill. Guess which one the American stores carry?)

I love noir books and film, from Raymond Chandler’s Angeleno classics to Beukes’ darkly magicked (yet respectful) take on it.

Noir is urban exploration as literary form. It evolves around a main character — neither cop nor robber but a bit of both — who gets paid to search the city for fast answers, reading characters who function as stand-ins for entire ways-of-being in the tough metropolis. Noir offers allegories of social and spatial interpretation in which truth takes backseat to power.

Cities force us to confront (or, as the case may be, to pointedly ignore) an enormous amount of socio-economic distance contained within a relatively small geographic space. Noir acknowledges that violence is one of the few events that can crosshatch all the various barriers raised; and that you must be a quasi-outsider (private investigator, former cop, ex-junkie, and so on) in order to successfully communicate across the city’s compressed and always potentially violent differences. It’s not easy, in other words, to climb outside your circles in the urban jungle.

Noir protagonists speak in wisecracks, and usually get physically punished for doing so. Zinzi December is constantly, hilariously mouthing-off. And as all real wise-asses know, humor is the only way to speak through certain taboos (calling Richard Pryor!). Noir protagonists’ world-weary approach to truth comes from that place of joking. They size-up people and, by extension, the city itself, scrutinizing every conversation not for its truthfulness (PIs expect to be lied to) but rather by how what is being said reflects the interests of the speaker. Truth as power struggle rather than fact.

It’s no coincidence that many noir plots end with the person ‘getting to the bottom of the story’ by uncovering complex power-plays that led to the crime, at the same time as they learn that that story can’t be made public, that those particular truths can’t be spoken, that something larger keeps them silent. Thinking back, Philip K. Dick’s A Scanner Darkly effectively internalized this noir premise — that truth or truthfulness is both sought-after and ultimately corrupted — by steeping the main character in drug-induced psychosis and paranoia; Lethem and Beukes each profit from Dick’s substance D deliriums.

Here’s an excerpt from Zoo City, riffing on the noir megathemes of class & access and the ways in which moving through a city is understanding it:

Traffic in Joburg is like the democratic process. Every time you think it’s going to get moving and take you somewhere, you hit another jam. There used to be shortcuts you could take through the suburbs, but they’ve closed them off, illegally: gated communities fortified like privatised citadels. Not so much keeping the world out as keeping the festering middle-class paranoia in. . .

and another, about entering a club:

…He ushers me towards the velvet ropes that have seen better days, and a short, wiry bouncer who is wearing a t-shirt that reads TRY IT MOTHERFUCKER.

“She’s with me,” Gio says and, although the bouncer is not happy to see Sloth, he gives us the tiniest of head tilts to indicate, yeah, sure, whatever.

The Biko Bar is to Steve Biko as crappy t-shirt design is to Che Guevara. His portrait stares down from various cheeky interpretations. A hand-painted barber-shop sign with a line-up of Bikos in profile modelling different hairstyles and headgear; a chiskop, a mullet, a makarapa mining helmet. Steve stares out with that trademark mix of determination and wistful heroism from the centre of a PAC-style Africa made of bold rays of sunlight. Steve, with a lion’s mane, is the focal point of a crest of struggle symbols, power fists, soccer balls, and a cursive “The most potent weapon of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed.” My academic dad would have hated it. Reduced by irony and iconography to a brand.

“I see they sell t-shirts,” I say. “Do the kids’ sizes come pre-soaked with acid?”

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Zoo City is the first book I’ve read where the author tweeted at me whilst I was reading it! Lauren was letting me know about the soundtrack, embedded here and thoroughly buyable. Also: the Kindle/eBook edition of Zoo City is currently available for $1. VERY AFFORDABLE.

Zoo City Soundtrack by africandope

MUDD UP BOOK CLUBB: MADRID EDITION

[screenshot from the June Mudd Up Book Clubb’s Ustream]

The Mudd Up Book Clubb continues! Every six weeks or so we gather (preferably on a rooftop) to talk about a good muddy book, stream the conversation so The Internet can participate, then eat delicious food. The Clubb is meant to be a realtime feast-for-the-senses thing, but I’ve started a low-activity Mudd Up Book Clubb mailing list, which will mostly be used to remind folks about the dates and give out location info. For the inaugural Casablanca edition we read Maureen McHugh’s Nekropolis, a novel set in 22nd century Morocco. For the second edition, the Clubb will meet in on a Madrid rooftop on August 10th or 11th (date to be confirmed soon), to discuss César Aira’s Cómo Me Hice Monja, a novel translated into English as How I Became A Nun. Este edición del Clubb va a ser bilingüe.

If you’re unfamiliar with the Argentine novelist Cesar Aira, I suggest that you simply read the book. No spoilers! It’s short and deliciously strange. Aira has published over 80 novels in Spanish, often scattered across small presses. The act of simply finding his work has a magical easter-egg hunt quality to it. How I Became A Nun is his most popular book, and a decent entrance. All Aira’s novels are quite brief. I’ve read around fifteen of them. I keep reading him. Some are terrible. But even the bad ones have special moments filled with an uncanny freshness and surprise and moments of aphoristic clarity.

I first learned about Aira from this comment on my blog:

I’m sort of obsessed with Cesar Aira, Argentinian, ridiculously prolific, starts from a premise and then writes forward, throwing up all these absurd obstacles and traps and pitfalls that he has to write himself out of, like some kind of perfromer trapped on stage who has to keep on improvising tricks and art out of nowhere and without knowing why, until for a second you glimpse a pattern in the chaos – and the whole theatre collapses.

There is nobody else writing like Aira, yet his writing isn’t at all “difficult.” Even at their weirdest, Aira’s books are syntactically uncomplicated; the big picture might be bizarre but he doesn’t clutter his prose with a lot of adjectives or challenging vocabulary — so he’s perfect for a non-native Spanish speaker like myself to read in the original. If you’d like to give it a shot, this website appears to have the entire text of Cómo Me Hice Monja.

[the lovely Madrid rooftop where we’re gonna meet!]

“Pero no hay situación que se eternice. Siempre pasa algo más.”

‘Nothing lasts forever. Something else always happens.’

– Cómo Me Hice Monja / How I Became A Nun

THE PART ABOUT THE CRIMES: BOLAÑO, RITA, RIHANNA

I’m about 600 pages into Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 –a book that is both horrible and hypnotic, one of the few Bolaño works I’ve been able to finish (Amuleto was the other one). Don’t get me wrong, I’ve read a lot of most of his books, some in English and some in Spanish; I simply think he’s overrated and overtranslated when compared to the amazing wealth of other contemporary Latin American writers. 2666’s spot-on epigraph begins things with a quote from Baudelaire: “An oasis of horror in a desert of boredom”. The 1000+ page book is divided into five parts. I’m drowning in part four, “The Part About The Crimes”. It describes, in blunt unaffected language, dozens upon dozens of brutal rapes and murders that occurred in Santa Teresa. The Mexican border city is Bolaño’s fictional stand-in for the very real Ciudad Juárez, where hundreds of women have been killed in unsolved murders stretching back to 1993. As in 2666 , many of these women worked in the American-owned maquiladoras in the nearby desert, making products for export north.

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If it were the stand-alone work of an unknown writer, The Part About The Crimes would be an insane, unpublishable anti-novel . But Bolaño’s writing has long embraced themes of systemic violence and the relationship (if any) of literature to any actual world.

Today, taking a break from the dark gravity of Part Four, I came across several related articles.

The New York Times reports that: “Foxconn, a Taiwanese firm that makes iPhones, Dell computers and other electronics, is one of several Asian companies taking root. It opened a plant in Juárez last summer. . .Despite several murders a day, trade between Juárez and Texas rose 47 percent last year to $71.1 billion.”

And The Guardian says: “Not by coincidence, Juarez is also a model for the capitalist economy. Recruits for the drug war come from the vast, sprawling maquiladora – bonded assembly plants where, for rock-bottom wages, workers make the goods that fill America’s supermarket shelves or become America’s automobiles, imported duty-free… ‘It’s a city based on markets and on trash,’ says Julián Cardona, a photographer who has chronicled the implosion.”

That quote brings to mind a scene from 2666‘s Part Three “The Part About Fate”, which chronicles a black New York City journalist who ends up in Santa Teresa covering a boxing game but learns about the killing of women (and ultimately engages in a favored Bolaño trope: having an outsider enter in a potentially lethal situation and extract a person at risk with the power of words or at least without physical force). This excerpt is rich in its typical Bolañoid blankness (“the sandwich was full of all kinds of things”), laced with a humor so dark you almost forget the room has no windows and we’re running out of air:

He could see hills on the horizon. The hills were dark yellow and black. Past the hills, he guessed, was the desert. He felt the urge to leave and drive into the hills, but when he got back to his table the woman had brought him a beer and a very thick kind of sandwich. He took a bite and it was good. The taste was strange, spicy. Out of curiosity, he lifted the piece of bread on top: the sandwich was full of all kinds of things. He took a long drink of beer and stretched in his chair. Through the vine leaves he saw a bee, perched motionless. Two slender rays of sun fell vertically on the dirt floor. When the man came back he asked how to get to the hills. The man laughed. He spoke a few words Fate didn’t understand and then he said not pretty, several times.

“Not pretty?”

“Not pretty,” said the man, and he laughed again.

Then he took Fate by the arm and dragged him into a room that served as a kitchen and that looked very tidy to Fate, each thing in its place, not a spot of grease on the white-tiled wall, and he pointed to the garbage can.

“Hills not pretty?” asked Fate.

The man laughed again.

“Hills are garbage?”

The man couldn’t stop laughing. He had a bird tattoed on his left forearm. Not a bird in flight, like most tattoos of birds, but a bird perched on a branch, a little bird, possibly a swallow.

“Hills a garbage dump?”

The man laughed even more and nodded his head.

 

And that’s that. The complex — and extremely macho — intensity of Bolaño’s Grand Novel can certainly benefit from queering interventions & inversions more about seeds than graves. First there’s Rihanna’s new single, in which the pop star from Barbados goes reggae as she recounts gunning down Chris Brown “a man”, in broad daylight, with immaculate hair and styling. Personally, I believe guns should be illegal. But I’m willing to make exceptions for Rihanna.

Edging further towards 2666 is Rita Indiana’s punk-mambo apocalyptic embrace of a song, whose title translates to “The Devil’s Takin’ Us Away”, which we produced and released on Dutty Artz awhile back — Rita was in NYC recently and whipped crowds into a frenzy with each performance of “No Ta Llevando El Diablo”. Here’s footage from her Summerstage rendition of it, “a tune so bold and out-of-this-world, that it really seems like a trip to hell.”

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MUDD UP BOOK CLUBB: JUNE 27th CASABLANCA EDITION

As announced in this post, the Mudd Up Book Clubb kicks off this month. We have a time and location now: It’s going down on Monday June 27th, at 7pm on the rooftop near rue Jean Jaures in Gauthier, Casablanca. It’s a particularly appropriate place to sit down and discuss Maureen F. McHugh’s Nekropolis, a science fiction novel set in 22nd century Morocco involving biochemical slavery, immigration, genetic chimeras and more. See the original post for more info on the event and the book.

We’ll have a Ustream feed going for everyone elsewhere. I’m looking at a Filastine’s Barcelona rooftop for the next edition, let’s keep these pages turning…

MUDD UP BOOK CLUBB: CASABLANCA EDITION

The idea is simple: every six weeks or so we gather somewhere for informal talk centered around a good muddy book, then go eat delicious food. We’ll have a live Ustream feed so Cousin Internet and Miss Larry Antitroll can participate.

The inaugural edition will convene on a Casablanca rooftop, around late afternoon/sunset, about six weeks from now. Tea will be served; pastilla بسطيلة afterward — all you need to do is read the book.

Our selection: Maureen F. McHugh’s Nekropolis, a science fiction novel set in 22nd century Morocco involving biochemical slavery, immigration, genetic chimeras, and — last but not least — a new mode of sexuality. All written by a white American lady who has never set foot in Morocco! (And it shows, but that’s OK. Just don’t tell her that Fez doesn’t really have a necropolis) There’s more to say, but I’ll wait for the roof. (Thanks to Anne ‘Odalisqued‘ Boyer for the for the head’s up.)

For more summer reading: Beyond Digital Beach Books pt. 1.


Speaking of modulated Moroccan futures… here’s a now-thing chaabi stormer I bought in the big Casablanca souq — a bit further in I saw an Auto-tune hardware rack unit for sale! The song comes from fantastic recent varietes chaabia compilation CD Nojoum Wislane. I’ll write more about this CD later — it features a new development in Auto-Tune… — once I’m there I’ll be able to get sleuthy with the info. But for now, enjoy, this is very much what’s bumping in the Casa street these days:

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? (Mudd Unknown) – ? (Nojoum Wislane)

BEYOND DIGITAL BEACH BOOKS – part 1

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[photo by Beyond Digital’s Juan Alcón Durán]

We’re been putting a lot of work into preparing for the June stretch of Beyond Digital, when our team of eight people (and rising!) will converge in Casablanca, Morocco… Website coming soon, along with a proper update.

But for now: part one of the Beyond Digital Summer Reading List! An outpost of the Dutty Artz/Mudd Up Book Club. I’ve been asked a few times for some BD related texts, so here you go: a handful of books I’ve read recently that struck chords with how I’ve been thinking about BD, in one way or another.

 

BEYOND DIGITAL SUMMER READING LIST: part one

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1. Pitch Perfect, my Auto-Tune essay for Frieze magazine, originally published in 2009.

The best article on Auto-Tune or your money back… Carolyn (Beyond Digital’s Paris point person, who’ll be joining us in Casa) just conducted a video interview with Moroccan producer Wary, who makes an appearance here.

 

2.The Radicant – Nicolas Bourriaud

Yes, the “French science fiction writer” from Hennesey Youngman’s hilarious video. This book is cool though. St. Nic is all about translation. We’re into it. (So is Michael Larson.) Bourriaud writes: “Translation may represent that ‘basic ethical effort’ that has been mistakenly associated with recognition of the other as such. For translation always implies adapting the meaning of a proposition, enabling it to pass from one code to another, which implies a mastery of both languages but also implies that neither is self-evident.” The Radicant is a slim book (perfect for the subway), which explains why I can’t find it right now. Probably on my desk. . .

“As a critical methodology, multiculturalism resembles a system for distributing meaning that assigns individuals to their social demands, reduces their being to their identity, and repatriates all meaning toward an origin regarded as a political revealer. It is this critical model that is in crisis today, this multiculturalist version of cultural diversity that must be placed in question, not in favor of a systematic universalism or a new modernist Esperanto, but rather in the context of a new modern moment based on generalized translation, the form of wandering, an ethics of precariousness, and a heterochronic vision of history.”

 

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3. Bab El-Oued, Merzak Allouache

This is a novelization of Allouache’s Bab El-Oued City film. It’s not great — it’s not even set in Morocco — but hey, how you gonna be mad at a novel that opens with the theft of a mosque’s loudspeaker (a handsome young baker throws it into the sea) and chronicles its impact on a working class Maghrebi neighborhood? Allouache sketches a social realist panorama, with a subplot involving romance novel smuggling.

Coming in Part Two: one of the best books about music, ever (hint: Umm); non-annoying non-Beat avant-garde lit about the aftermath of a terrorist bombing written by an expat in Marrakesh; sci-fi set in Fez dealing with biological slavery and a new mode of sexuality; Appadurai’s ethnoscapes, and more…

In the meantime, some heat from the first volume of DJ Amine’s Maghreb Mix Party series:

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Bakr – N’reserve Wenelhagha

REVELATIONS FROM THE 5-STAR MUTUEL DREAM BOOK

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Seems to me like a nice route through tonight is to begin by catching Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts reading from her new book at the New School [UPDATE: THE NEW SCHOOL IS CLOSED TODAY DUE TO SNOW, READING POSTPONED] and then make our collective way over to Made in Africa — whose special guest DJ, Akwaaba’s BBrave, will stop by next Monday‘s radio show.

Harlem Is Nowhere (the book: excerpt) is out now, two weeks after my Domus mixtape appeared. The New York Times reviewer read her work & couldn’t help but hear music (Auto-Tune no less!):

It reads, in fact, as if Ms. Rhodes-Pitts had taken W. E. B. Du Bois’s “Souls of Black Folk” and Maya Angelou’s “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” and spliced them together and remixed them, adding bass, Auto-Tuned vocals, acoustic breaks, samples (street sounds, newsreel snippets, her own whispered confessions) and had rapped over the whole flickering collage. It makes a startling and alive sound, one you cock your head at an angle to hear.

Here’s a breakout jam from my Harlem Is Nowhere mixtape. The beat is an exclusive from Timeblind, low-slung, spacious, holding momenum in one hand and stillness in the other. Sharifa and I read excerpts from the 1941 edition of Rajah Rabo’s 5-Star Mutuel Dream book.

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This incredible publication listed pages and pages of things you might see, with accompanying 3-digit lottery numbers to bet on if you saw them. The lottery dream book simultaneously quantifies the mundane and wires it into a complex system of hope and mysticism, all with an eye on the money. Money the only thing that moves around a city faster or more completely than its number runners. Illegal uptown gambling created this fantastic by-product, these lean little snapshots of life on the street. This was Rajah Rabo’s landscape of possibilities. And so we receive a strange vision of what one might have seen, seventy years back. In many ways the quotidian is the rarest of all. The thing that gets lost first. So we read it. So we say it.

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DJ Rupture, Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts, Timeblind – Rajah Rabo’s 5-Star Mutuel Dream Book

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Last but not least: if you are reading this and own or have access to a yacht, please let me know. We’ll only need to borrow it for a month or two. Thanks!

WNYC SOUNDCHECK: Part 2 + DUTTY ARTZ BOOK CLUB

Drake Portrait

Drake. Canadian, former child actor, biracial, raised Jewish, talks about his ’emotions’: could this be new face of hiphop?

Jon Caramanica will join me on WNYC’s Soundcheck today to discuss…

Yes- Round 2 of my WNYC Soundcheck hosting experience continues today. In addition to the chat with Caramanica, jazz bassist Stephan Crump will perform a few songs, and I’ll interview Josh Kun about Asian-Americans in US pop (check his recent article on Legaci). Broadcasting live: 2-3pm, WNYC 93.9 FM.

Hosting Soundcheck yesterday was a blast – and probably the only time you’ll hear me talking about the Beatles. You can listen here. Working with the full Soundcheck team is a radically different experience from my WFMU show. It’s like augmented reality: real voices in your head, a stream of digital info enhancing all that your senses take in, research crew, A/V wizards, Neumann mics, …

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If that is not enough… the multimedia storm/media hallucination continues later today as we debut the Dutty Artz Book Club, Ustreaming at 7pm EST, with a Dutty Artz radio session to follow. We’ll be rolling deep: Matt Shadetek, Lamin Fofana, Taliesen, and myself broadcasting live from the basement of Dubspot.

For the 1st edition of Dutty Artz Book Club, we’re gonna have a spoiler-free discussion of Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower. We love Octavia.

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Octavia E. Butler

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In other news, since I am reading a book about cloning Carlos Fuentes (Cesar Aira – El Congreso de la Literatura), I decided I should read Carlos Fuentes – and the Housing Works Bookstore Cafe has a rich vein of second-hand Fuentes books for cheap. I bought two today (a bilingual edition of Aura, and A New Time For Mexico). Total cost: $9!!

Housing Works is the best. Oases, occasionally, are real.

HIGH STANDARDS, LOW NUMBERS

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Back from Madrid with a roller-case bearing obscure books and 1 € Maghrebi CD-rs…

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Khaled – Rai Arai (DJ SMS mix)

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speaking of books…

A lot of the people who read a bestselling novel, for example, do not read much other fiction. By contrast, the audience for an obscure novel is largely composed of people who read a lot. That means the least popular books are judged by people who have the highest standards, while the most popular are judged by people who literally do not know any better. An American who read just one book this year was disproportionately likely to have read “The Lost Symbol”, by Dan Brown. He almost certainly liked it.

A World of Hits, The Economist

NYC TODAY: RADIO TALK, REAL TALK

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I will be on WNYC’s Soundcheck at 2pm today, along with Sleater Kinney’s Carrie Brownstein. We are both contributors to the De Capo Best Music Writing 2009 anthology, and will be reading from that, chatting with host John Schaefer, and playing to some excerpts from my upcoming mix, Solar Life Raft.

As I mentioned recently, the De Capo book has a reading and release party at Housing Works Cafe, 7pm tonight, with afterparty at 9pm. Come join Greil Marcus and a handful of us as we read selections and field a bit of Q&A.

Also at 7pm – my weekly radio show on WFMU 91.1. fm. The show, as always, is preceded by Douglass Rushkoff & followed by Trent – a nice sandwich.

Lamin will help me simultaneously manifest in SoHo and Jersey City. Key figures from tonight’s show include: Michael Watts, Chief Boima, Geeshie Wiley, Roll Deep, Victor Deme, & Mike Ladd explaining How Electricity Really Works.

Just returned to the States, lots of new music to share. The tree outside my window is half of what it was. Fall.