In a recent blog post, Mark Richardson described three different ways music can be processed by the listener:
Some music I hear with my body, I actually receive the sound partly with my body and want to move muscles when I hear it. Some music I hear more with my brain, like I turn over images and consider ideas and so on, it’s a cerebral experience. And music… works in a third way, which is that it seems someone wired directly into my nervous system. When I hear it i don’t want to move and I don’t want to think, I want to sort of sit back and let it wash over me. It feels like an electrical current or something, a wavelength I tune into that makes me very happy.
I didn’t realize it right away, but I have experience with that third way.
When I hear bluegrass — some combination of banjo, guitar, mandolin, violin, and bass, though the effect is strongest when banjo is involved — it’s like a relief valve has been opened ever so slightly, and the pressure that’s built up within my body returns to some sort of equilibrium. If you were standing in front of me right now, I’d mime this process by tensing my shoulders up and then slowly letting them fall back to a relaxed position. Maybe I’d even make a hissing sound for good measure. Given how resonant this reaction can be, you’d think I grew up listening to the stuff — that I was reliving some deep-seated and comforting childhood memory, but neither of my parents was all that interested in bluegrass. When I’m feeling particularly romantic, I like to think this means that there’s something truly special about the genre, or about the relationship between it and my brain’s hard-wiring. When I’m feeling cynical, I attribute this effect to a deeply complicated relationship with having grown up in one of the least capital-S Southern cities in Virginia, a state that’s Southern to Northerners and Northern to Southerners. Maybe my desire to belong runs that deep.
In any case, I connected my reaction to bluegrass with Richardson’s “third way” because I was thinking about another combination of sounds that produces that relief valve effect, and it can be found on Lunatic, an album recorded by a band called KONGOS. (I believe they stylize their name with capital letters. If I’m wrong, just imagine I’m shouting the name at you in a crowded bar.) This other combination is electric bass, accordion and guitar — an arrangement I almost certainly grew to love because of Paul Simon’s Graceland album — sounds that scream “South Africa” to me, especially when the bass and guitar slide up to notes. Simon’s “Gumboots” is a great example, and KONGOS use those same instruments on Lunatic highlights “Come With Me Now,” “Sex On The Radio” and “It’s A Good Life,” the last of which I deployed strategically this past weekend when Mrs. YHT and I were visiting her grandparents in Florida. Picture me rolling up Midnight Pass Road in Siesta Key, lime-green sunglasses on, pumping the song below via the Microsoft SYNC system of Mrs YHT’s grandparents’ gold/tan Lincoln. Awwwww yeah. Talk about a good life.
The Kongos brothers have South African roots, having grown up there and in London, and despite making Arizona their home base some years ago, they’ve gained a great deal of popularity back in South Africa, playing to stadium crowds in Cape Town and Johannesburg. I talked about cultural appropriation recently, and a band like KONGOS, which feels markedly international, and an album like Lunatic, which is varied in style and mood, would seem to be somewhat vulnerable to the CA scarlet letter. (Paul Simon sure as hell was when he made Graceland.) But aren’t they a reasonable argument against the way that label’s been thrown around lately? You’d have to know the brothers personally to know how that bass-accordion-guitar arrangement affected their musical sensibilities growing up, when they moved where and why, and to what degree their use of that combination stems from being naturally drawn to those sounds vs. their desire to make a breakthrough album. It’s more or less impossible, and I’m willing to bet their upbringing brought on something not unlike my pressure valve effect, where those instruments felt right and balanced. Natural, even, no matter how they became ingrained.
There’s lots of fun stuff on Lunatic — I hope you’ll check out “It’s a Good Life” below and click here to buy the album.