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Highly Opinionated

Bill Laswell - The Musician Becomes The Music

By Published: October 25, 2003

Throughout Laswell

New Age. World Beat. World Music. What have we here? Are these terms that the psychoanalysts may write in a prescription to heal the music industry sociopath? Are they what some of today’s musicians would throw as a sop to the industry? A musical cop out by accidental artists who believe that they are creating something new? It is more likely to be the industry’s way of allowing music that is beyond comfortable category to see the light of day, and then melt into the darkness of a CD bin somewhere in the corner of a record store. What a terrifying thought! One that is almost as scary as the visual shock of viewing a particularly schmaltzy painting of Senegalese drummers, or Celtic fiddlers in the dilettante’s drawing room to celebrate his eclectic lifestyle. Curry to the neo-colonial who has been going gray and insane, trying to count 101 beats played on the tabla or several more on a chatan, or trying to strike up a rapport with the Gnawa musician in a trance!

Stuff and nonsense, anyway you crack it up to be because the beat of the new age is far from fashionable, to be played between ‘regular programming’ for the creation of a media event in a living room. Ask Sola, or Wu Man, Zakhir Hussain, or Ustad Sultan Khan... Ask Maleem Mahmoud Ghania or Bechir Attar... Pharoah Sanders or Ornette Coleman. Or better still; turn to the musical projects of Bill Laswell.

Chances are that Bill Laswell’s conceptual excursions will point you in the direction of a musical stargate that will – if and when you dare to cross it – transport you to a cultural soundscape where the story of the world’s music pulsates like an ancient heart in a contemporary ribcage. And with dancing feet that whip up a visceral storm as it hurtles through the ages.

Laswell is transmigrating! This is more than a mere captivating idea. It is truly real. There is a veritable shape shifting of the human body and spirit as it transforms itself holistically until an entirely new dialect emerges in song, paying homage to the myth and legend in the story of the great civilizations – both ancient and modern – of planet earth. The mystical earth tones have been immersed in the twirl and whirl that beckon, unto itself, the true lover of music. Ah! Bill Laswell... A very rare artist – bassist and composer who has dared to abandon conventional occidental wisdom and take flight into the unknown realms in the universe of sound, to meditate upon ideas – with daring and originality – and consistently transcend existing boundaries of genre, geography, culture, and context, then meld his musical genius with the griots and musicians of this a world. And that too, where most artists fear to tread.

Bill Laswell has almost always been a radical and restless artist, with a mind that wanders like a medieval apothecary picking up and soaking in every element of civilizations long declared dead by the terrible mechanizations of the occidental world. He is a Bela Bartok with wings! An artist who has made it his mission in music to search for more spatial interpretations of harmony and rhythm.

In his early years Laswell toured the Midwest and South US with cover bands that played the R&B hits of the day by such groups as James Brown, Wilson Pickett, The Ohio Players, Temptations, and The Meters, among many others. Laswell’s instrument of choice – the electric bass – radiated with the funky grooves of that musical dialect. From R&B via country and funk to blues and jazz, Laswell continued on his fascinating voyage of discovery until he arrived in New York and fell in with the avant-garde set. The revolutionary musical expression of Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane, Albert Ayler, Cecil Taylor and Pharoah Sanders fired his imagination and search for cutting edge musical perspective and the artistic expression. Free and spirited excursions opened up a whole new landscape where tonal color and texture fused with the pulse (rather than the beat) of rhythmic adventure. Harmony and melody reinvented itself as a tonal whole, demanding quite a new concept in musical composition and expression.

Laswell grasped all this with steadfast brilliance. Add to that the fact that the age of electronic instrumentation made it possible for the musician to discover ambient soundscapes far beyond conventional (and stubborn) wisdom. Bill Laswell wore all this like a second skin. He developed concepts to fit all these developments in the musical environment. His work with the amorphous and brilliant group ‘Material’ – most notably, the album, Hallucination Engine, is a classic testament. Ekstasis, with Nicky Skopelitis, was no less outstanding. Together, these two albums captured the symbiotic high ground that incorporated traditional styles of trance music, with new technology and varied musicians, expanding on existing traditions and styles to create a truly memorable and ethereal new organic electric trance music. His mind-expanding sonic architecture on collaborations with William Burroughs (Seven Souls) and with Paul Bowles (Baptism of Solitude) have taken the interaction, collision and collaboration of two creative beings to a new level of profoundly significant creativity, where the sum of the two creative geniuses is greater – infinitely greater – than the sum of the parts. This creative spark is to be found in his spectacular work with the Last Poets, on Oh My People and Be Bop or Be Dead, for instance.

Throughout Laswell’s excursions in to the ocean of sound, examples of his epic genius have been manifest. And whether he participated as a bassist or, more significantly, orchestrated the production of the voyage of discovery, he has left his indelible signature. Consider, Ask The Ages the late Sonny Sharrock’s tribute to John Coltrane, a feature that included Elvin Jones, Pharoah Sanders and Charnett Moffett, Ginger Baker’s Album project and his relatively recent Radioaxiom (A Dub Transmission, Bass: The Final Frontier), with Jah Wobble are also lasting testaments to his genius as both producer and musician. Actually, I should merely classify his role in everything that Laswell ‘touches’ as an artistic imprint. It is impossible to separate musician and producer with every Laswell project. Ever listened to Panthalassa – the Miles Davis remixes and then to a Laswell solo project, such as Hear No Evil and then tried to separate the musician from the producer? This is well-nigh impossible!

It is also impossible – and this is part of his genius – to find (and I hesitate to use the word) ‘a genre’ that has not been touch magically by the musical sorcery of Bill Laswell. Sometimes he even melded inspired funky grooves (Hear No Evil) and the electronica of our modern world (Tabla Beat Science) to put in a context that will be fresh until the time of our children’s children’s children! And many other times, he became the funnel for the myths, legend and history to flow through the spirits of other artists (When he produced Sonny Sharrock’s Ask The Ages excursion, or when he traveled to Morocco to capture the great storyteller, Mahmoud Ghania and jazz legend, Pharoah Sanders fuse ancient and modern wisdom on the hypnotic Trance Of the Seven Colors, or on Blues From The East, where the Chinese singer, Sola did much the same with the New York’s Last Poet, Umar Bin Hassan... to name just a few projects, from almost three hundred that Laswell must have been involved in to date.

But, I believe that his greatest achievement has come from an attempt to find the true essence of all sound, from its absolutely ancient origins in the cradle of all civilizations – Africa. In his classic rant on cross-cultural synergy, the modern thinker, Hakim Bey has set a blistering tone for all artistic endeavors. “The last vestiges of colonial-imperialist mentality cause us to mistake other peoples' culture for the raw material of our eclectic postmodern "mix." But in fact we're guilty of cultural appropriation --- or in less fancy terms, stealing from friends... We're interested now in de-centering the discourse and constructing a cross-cultural synergy. No more pyramids with Euro-males on top and "anonymous" voices from some distant Turkish radio on the bottom. Collaboration - not appropriation. Translation — not interpretation. Life - not "lifestyle." Plagiarism as a cultural tactic should be directed at putrid capitalists, not potential comrades. "World" culture is either true co-creation, or it is nothing. Or worse than nothing: a sin against the Holy Spirit. There is no exotic other. Planet Earth - love it or leave it.” Bill Laswell’s musical excursions have always exemplified this artistic truth and tribute to the musical world that surrounds us.

YOU DON’T JUST HEAR IT... YOU FEEL IT

It is a historical fact that by the time so-called "world music" and "worldbeat" came into vogue, Laswell had already been developing various fusions and formulae for the celebration of all earthly and ancient music. With his genius and ear and with irrepressible spirit he brought this music out of the sometimes dusty and misty cultures – so misunderstood in the West – and infused in it urgency that just had to be heard in the modern context.

The field recordings he produced in Morocco and Gambia (including The Master Musicians of Jajouka featuring Bachir Attar - Apocalypse Across The Sky, Mandinka & Fulani Music Of The Gambia - Ancient Heart, and Gnawa Music Of Marrakech - Night Spirit Masters and also Trance of the Seven Colors with Pharoah Sanders and Mahmoud Ghania, mentioned a little later) were unprecedented. They involve the live, digital multitrack recording of musicians outdoors as they have played for centuries, with a twist: the multitrack tapes, which capture the individual microphones on each member of the large ensembles, are then taken into premium recording studios, and mixed as any state-of-the-art album is, resulting in spatial ambience, depth, and separation that is a far cry from the "field recordings" made on two-track recorders.

The Laswell undertaking [in Jajouka] was a project within the realms of World Music, but it was no exercise in tokenism. Speaking about the heady experiences that he was able to capture on tape the day after the recordings took place, Laswell said: "There are moments when you can actually hear the sounds and the instruments changing into music. It's right there on the tape...it's a different energy. Also, I found if you focus on the bass drum, and keep listening to what he's doing, you almost black out. He's the one holding it together, with time moving all around. He's the central point."

In his classic rant on cross-cultural synergy, the modern thinker, Hakim Bey has set a blistering tone for all artistic endeavors. “The last vestiges of colonial-imperialist mentality cause us to mistake other peoples' culture for the raw material of our eclectic postmodern "mix." But in fact we're guilty of cultural appropriation --- or in less fancy terms, stealing from friends... We're interested now in de-centering the discourse and constructing a cross-cultural synergy. No more pyramids with Euro-males on top and "anonymous" voices from some distant Turkish radio on the bottom. Collaboration - not appropriation. Translation — not interpretation. Life - not "lifestyle." Plagiarism as a cultural tactic should be directed at putrid capitalists, not potential comrades. "World" culture is either true co-creation, or it is nothing. Or worse than nothing: a sin against the Holy Spirit. There is no exotic other. Planet Earth - love it or leave it.” Bill Laswell’s musical excursions have always exemplified this artistic truth and tribute to the musical world that surrounds us.

In everything he did Laswell paid more than fleeting homage to the music of cultures unknown, and certainly not with commercialism and hype that prevails today. Where other labels, producers, and organizations simply bring in "guest" artists, or relegate traditional music to a kid glove "ethnographic" or "ethnomusicological" context, Bill Laswell’s work on his Axiom label cultivated relationships and working understandings with master artists from throughout the world. His productions have always been vibrant with the energy of interactivity between players, consistently eschewing a patronizing display of legendary musicians or cultural representations.



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