The Wire

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The Mire: Tangents, threads and opinions from The Wire HQ

Herbie rides again

Tony Herrington

Last week at East London’s Cafe Oto the new season of The Wire Salon got off to a futurological start with a talk by Adam Harper based on his book Infinte Music: Imagining The Next Millennium Of Human Music-making. In the talk, Adam repeated the book's citing of the music of the nomadic Aka Pygmies of the Central African rainforest as one example of an 'alien genre’ that can point the way towards an infinity of musical possibilities.

(Of course, referring to any indigenous non-Western music as an 'alien genre' is somewhat problematic, as Adam readily admitted, but in this case he seems to be using it to identify highly complex musical forms that arise out of normative social activity – an actually existing practice in many parts of the world, but in post-industrial societies, one which has been annexed from the public sphere by the deleterious forces of the culture industry and therefore rendered alien. Or, as Richard Henderson put it in his Field Recordings Primer in The Wire 168: "What Steve Reich accomplished with elliptical tape loops in concurrent motion on "It's Gonna Rain", the Aka manage to do while walking to work in the morning.")

Towards the end of the subsequent panel discussion, which brought Mira Calix and Nightwave into the debate, Adam took issue with one famous attempt to use this primordial polyphonic sound as a launch pad to the outer limits, dissing Herbie Hancock’s appropriation of it on the remake of "Watermelon Man" on the 1973 Headhunters album.

I was moderating the panel, and over the years have also happened to have spent God knows how many hours traveling the spaceways signposted by Herbie's 70s music. So while such a public diss would usually have had me banging the offending speaker upside the head with my chairman's gavel, on the night I let it pass, as it was an aside at most, and to take issue with it would have carried us way off message. But in the cold light of day such an assessment demands some kind of analysis or response, so...

Where Adam experiences "Watermelon Man" as an inert distillation of an ancient and complex and living communal music, I hear an integrated musical performance riven with tension and currents that run fast and deep. (And if Adam really wanted to make a point about how such an alien genre can be killed stone dead by careless sampling, then citing Deep Forest would have rammed the point home more thoroughly, not to say conclusively.)

Adam wasn't impressed with that album title either (“It's called Headhunters for God's sake!"), but I've always read it as a sly deployment of the kind of militant semiotics that would be mobilised to fuller effect by P-funk and the Hiphop Nation – as in: Headhunters as proselytizers for a new tribal aesthetix, mind expansion for headz, etc.

Like the music on Herbie's previous Mwandishi, Crossings and Sextant albums, Headhunters and "Watermelon Man" were the results of a fusion experiment that was itself the product of a unifying Afrocentricism that on the cusp of the 70s was an imperative for many black American musicians emerging from a decade marked by an integrationist civil rights movement on the one side, and the separatist Black Nationalist and Black Arts movements on the other.

Still, Adam's ethnomusicological disgust hits a nerve in one respect, because Headhunters and "Watermelon Man" were also a stark indication of how Africa was an alien zone even for conscious jazzers like Herbie and his group (an indication of how thoroughly slavery had worked its nihilistic designs on the folk memory of an entire people). Admittedly, Headhunters was a step back from the advances of its predecessor Sextant, which, pace Infinite Music, contains a multiverse of sonic variables and alien timbres which has yet to be fully explored and colonised. But the quantum funk was still going on, and the whole thang was just one component in a wider programme to cauterize some of the psychic vandalism inflicted during the Middle Passage, one which asserted an ancient-to-the-future black identity by getting explicit about the African component of a sound that was mapping the pathways to new worlds.

Maybe it's a generational thing. Adam is half my age, and from the perspective of a twentysomething 21st century musicologist it might all sound a bit lumpen and prosaic. But to dismiss it as crass, or even exploitative, is to ignore the music's own temporal-spatial reality and its position within a complex sociopolitical process, one which was further complicated by the fact it was taking place in the context of the mass culture industry. Herbie was signed to Columbia, one of the largest entertainment conglomerates on the planet, with ambitions to follow his labelmate and former employer Miles Davis in breaking out of the jazz ghetto. But following the commercial failure of Sextant, he was under pressure to deliver product that would recoup his label’s investment - which he did: Headhunters shifted more than a million units, which means it landed an alien genre deep inside the collective consciousness of mainstream America with genuine force.

In the mid-90s I interviewed Herbie, when he was staying in the surreal opulence of the Park Lane Hotel overlooking Hyde Park in central London. I'd requested the meeting to talk specifically about that amazing sequence of records he'd produced in the lead up to Headhunters. I was eager to find out what had been going on in his head when he and his group of furthermuckers (© Greg Tate) had retrofitted their instruments with cyborg prosthetix and devised that technologised jazz-not-jazz-almost-funk that felt so harmonically expansive and rhythmically advanced, not to mention mythpoetically charged and quantum physically mysterious. Naturally he was affable and charming and fielded my questions with good grace, but it was ultimately a dispiriting experience. Basically, he wasn't interested, seemingly regarding the music as at best misguided exhuberance, at worst hubristic folly. (The transcript and that of a second interview conducted by phone a few months later were eventually folded into an article, all 7000 words of it, on what became known as the Mwandishi group that appeared in The Wire 174.)

As a musician, Herbie was living a weird dual existence by this point, pushing an airless heritage industry version of the kind of acoustic jazz which characterised his mid-60s breakthrough albums for the Blue Note label, as well as a form of hi-tech industry fuzak so sinisterly corporate that even now it makes James Ferarro's Far Side Virtual sound like Dock Boggs plucking a banjo in a sharecropper's shack (but I suppose that's all part of the conceptual smarts of Ferraro's guerilla hack of a record).

Appropriately for someone who could command such lofty accommodation, he was dressed like the CEO of a Dow Jones listed company just over for a weekend shopping trip to Harrods – his sports jacket, slacks and loafers combo probably cost more than I made in a month (but did he still have all those dashikis and kaftans he used to wear in the 70s, maybe hanging neglected at the back of a closet somewhere in his LA condo? I don't know, I neglected to ask). A friend of Sting, Joni Mitchell and Stevie Wonder, recipient of various Grammys and MTV Awards, his position in the upper echelons of Entertainment USA Inc was secure, and he wasn’t about to rise to the bait of an offay journo from some obscure UK music zine who wanted to know if he'd ever felt like an extraterrestrial (seriously). In the article, it was left to other members of Herbie’s group, trumpeter Eddie Henderson in particular, to articulate the music’s affective power, its alien heat and infinite potentiality.

All of this only encouraged a creeping and somewhat perplexing notion that Herbie had always been the most conservative member of every group he fronted, but had still somehow found himself at the controls of some of the most significant departures in post-war black music, and not just with regard to those early 70s records either

If you know Sunlight's boogie down productions, or the future shock electro of "Rockit", but are hazy on the backstory, check the playlist below.

And wonder what it must be like to be a musician who has this kind of history, but whose reality over the last two decades or more seems to necessitate the denial of a past in which any of it actually happened.

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