music – … My heart’s in Accra Ethan Zuckerman’s online home, since 2003 Sun, 09 Dec 2018 18:14:49 +0000 en-US hourly 1 When Being Happy is Political Wed, 21 May 2014 16:29:43 +0000 Continue reading ]]> The Atlantic was kind enough to run a lightly edited version of this post. I’m posting here after their publication so that this remains in my archives.

Pharrell Williams is a happy man, but he’s crying. He’s one of the most in-demand record producers in the world, and had a hand in the two hottest songs of 2013, “Get Lucky” by Daft Punk and “Blurred Lines” by Robin Thicke. While those songs were inescapable on radio and television last summer, Pharrell’s most recent hit, “Happy”, has taken a different path to prominence.

French director Yoann Lemoine and production team We Are From LA worked with Pharrell to create a unique video for “Happy”. The video is 24 hours long, and was shot all across Los Angeles, featuring dozens of celebrity cameos interspersed amongst shot after shot of people dancing happily. It took 11 days to shoot the video, though many of the shots were single takes. The video follows the course of the day in LA, with footage from dawn to dusk and through the night, with Pharrell appearing each hour.

The original “Happy” video

The video quickly spawned thousands of fan remakes, featuring workplaces, business schools, college dorms who are all happy. Faced with a viral hit, Pharrell’s label, Columbia Records/Sony Music, has turned a blind eye to possible copyright violations, and one can easily spend hours on YouTube flipping from one fanvid to the next.

There’s a special subcategory of these videos that I think of as “georemixes”. The georemix builds on the idea that the original “Happy” video is a love letter to Los Angeles, a portrait of the city’s architecture, landscapes, people and spirit, and moves the party to a new location. More than a thousand georemixes of “Happy” exist, and they portray happy people on all six continents.

Pharrell, on Oprah, crying over “Happy”

Pharrell is on Oprah, watching a compilation of these remixes that bring his song around the world, from Detroit to Dakar. In the 30 seconds of the video Oprah shows, we catch glimpses of happy Taiwanese women on a spa day, Icelanders dancing on a glacier and Londoners strutting with Big Ben in the background. Pharrell’s reaction is the one many of us have had to the remixes of his video: he cries for a long time, overwhelmed not only by his success but by the experience of watching a simple idea – film yourself being happy – as it spreads around the world.

“Happy” is not the first video that’s been georemixed. Last summer, I gave a talk at the MIT8 conference focused on remixes of PSY’s Gangnam Style and Baauer’s Harlem Shake. In researching these localized remixes, my students pointed me to Jay-Z and Alicia Keys’s “Empire State of Mind”, remixed in remarkable fashion into “Newport State of Mind”, by comics M-J Delaney, Alex Warren and Terema Wainwright. (The parody was further parodied by Welsh rappers Goldie Looking Chain, who complained that the Newport parodiers lacked local knowledge and cred.)

The original “Empire State of Mind”

“Newport (Ymerodraeth State of Mind)”

The georemix dates back at least as early as 2005, when Lazy Sunday, produced by The Lonely Island (Saturday Night Live’s Chris Parnell and Andy Samberg) was remixed into parodies like Lazy Muncie, showing midwest pride, and Lazy Ramadi, which replaces a search for cupcakes with a confrontation with Iraqi insurgents.

Lazy Munzie

Lazy Ramadi

The Lazy Sunday georemix was born out of a mock East Coast/West Coast rap beef, which quickly set the tone for georemix videos. Each response is a retelling of the core story, transposed to a new location, bragging about local landmarks and habits. While the braggadocio in these remixes is pure parody, there’s a sense in which each of these videos makes a claim to share the stage with the original. YouTube’s related videos feature means that there’s a chance that some of the 2 billion viewers of PSY’s Gangnam Style video will encounter Zigi’s “Ghana Style”, a georemix that relocates Seoul to Accra and replaces PSY’s horse dance with Ghanaian Azonto. (And if not through YouTube, viewers may encounter Zigi through the hundreds of listicles that advertise “10 Best Gangnam Style Parodies”)

Zigi’s Azonto version of Gangnam Style

I think of the georemix as a claim to attention, a way of demanding part of the spotlight that shines on a popular video. It’s a very basic demand: accept that we’re part of this phenomenon, too. In remixing Gangnam Style, Zigi sends the message that Ghana has YouTube, is clued into global cultural trends, has its own distinct sound and dance style to share with the world, and can produce videos as technically proficient as anything coming from other corners of the world. To me, “Ghana Style” reads both as lighthearted celebration of a catchy tune that truly went global, and a political statement about a world where culture can spread from South Korea to Ghana to the US, not just from the US and Europe to the rest of the world.

Of course, the georemix can also be purely political. Ai Wei Wei’s Gangnam style, titled Grass Mud Horse Style, moves the dance into his studio in Beijing and is filmed almost entirely within the walls of that compound, alluding perhaps to the artist’s frequent arrests and detentions. (If the location doesn’t set the theme, his appearance a minute into the video, spinning handcuffs certainly does.) Other georemixes take on specific issues explicitly. Consider Dig Grave Style, a protest video made by students from China’s Henan province, in which dancers rise from the earth to protest the moving of graves from villages to open land for real estate development.

Dig Grave Style

Remixing a video is a shortcut to creating original content. The script is partially written – the creativity comes from changing the lyrics and the setting. The popularity of the Harlem Shake meme (which was georemixed around the world, and saw political georemixes in Tunis and Cairo) came in part from the extremely low levels of effort required to participate in the phenomenon – simply film people behaving in an ordinary way, then dancing like madmen in strange costumes and you’ve got your localized Harlem Shake.

“Happy” benefits from this low barrier to entry. There are Happy remixes that function as shot-by-shot remakes of the short, official Pharrell video, and there are vastly more that adopt the spirit of the video and transpose it to a local context.

Loïc Fontaine and Julie Fersing deserve much of the credit for the georemixes that made Pharrell cry, though neither has made a video. Fersing, an interior designer in Nantes, began collecting georemixes of “Happy”, searching YouTube to find new material. When she’d located 21 of the videos, she turned to her husband, Fontaine, who’d begun a career in website development nine months earlier. Together, they launched We Are Happy From, a portal that now hosts 1682 videos from 143 countries.

We Are Happy From front page

We Are Happy From front page

Once the site had attracted about 50 remixes, Fontaine contacted the We Are From LA production team, who gave the project their blessing. While Fontaine had not spoken to Pharrell when I interviewed him a month ago, he felt quite confident that the project was consistent with the artist’s wishes and would survive, pointing out that Sony had not taken action to remove the vast majority of remix and parody videos posted online. Indeed, the success of the song has likely had a great deal to do with the widespread participation online, giving “Happy” an online life and prominence that no amount of radio payola could provide. (Pharrell has embraced the notion of the georemix, urging people around the world to produce their versions of the video as part of a UN-sponsored International Day of Happiness.)

We Are Happy From is simply an index, pointing to videos hosted on YouTube, Daily Motion and other platforms. While the videos have a consistent look, usually opening with a black on yellow title screen (as Pharrell’s video does), Fontaine doesn’t provide any production help or guidelines. Still, the videomakers are clearly conscious of We Are Happy From’s role in promoting “Happy” videos as a global form, as many videos feature a screencap of the We Are Happy From map.

While anyone can submit a video to We Are Happy From, not all videos appear on the map. Fersing is the curator, and she watches all videos before adding them to the map. (As of April, the couple were receiving 20-40 videos a day.) Videos that are overly commercial or connected to political or social causes don’t make the cut. Fontaine explained that some French political parties produced Happy videos as campaign materials – We Are Happy From chose not to feature those videos. An Italian version of Happy with an environmental message was also not included, nor was Porto (un)Happy, which features activists dancing through unfinished construction sites in Porto Allegre, Brazil, along with subtitles that critique government spending on public works projects. (Manaus is unhappy as well.)

I asked Fontaine why he and his wife had chosen to become active curators of the project. It was a practical decision, Fontaine explained: “They say it’s black, someone else says it’s white. How am I to judge?” Rather than evaluating the validity of political claims, he would rather focus on what he sees as the core message of these remixes: “We Are Happy From is purely about the happiness. We just want to show a simple message about being happy about where we live.”

For me, as a student of civic media, the dissident videos excluded from the We Are Happy Map are the most interesting ones. Fontaine has kindly shared the list of rejected videos with me, and I hope to spend some time this summer watching those 500 remixes in the hopes of developing an understanding of how “Happy” can work as a script for advocacy (or how videomakers think it might act as that script.) But for Fontaine and his wife, the mark of success wasn’t raising awareness for a cause or an issue – it was documenting the spread of happiness globally. When I interviewed Fontaine, he was celebrating the spread of “Happy” to Antarctica, with a video from French research station Dumont d’Urville.

The 1600 videos on We Are Happy From may not advocate for a political party or a cause, but they are “political”. When the residents of Toliara, Madagascar make their version of “Happy”, they’re making a statement that they’re part of the same media environment, part of the same culture, part of the same world as Pharrell’s LA. This assertion isn’t quite as anodyne as Disney’s “Small World After All” or the “I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke” campaign. Even with Fontaine and Fersing’s curation, we get distinct glimpses of how different it can be to be happy in different corners of the world: Happy in Damman, Saudi Arabia features wonderfully goofy men, but not a single woman. Beijing is happy, but profoundly crowded and hazy – intentionally or not, the video is a statement about air pollution as well as about a modern, cosmopolitan city.

A few weeks ago, We Are Happy From added a video from Tehran, Iran to the map. If you don’t know where the video is from, it’s unremarkable. A dozen twenty-somethings, men and women, dance on a rooftop, wear silly outfits, and wave their legs while lying on a bed. It’s remarkable only if you know that women in Iran are forbidden to appear in public without their hair covered and that men and women are prohibited from dancing together in public.

Happy in Tehran

Given context, the video is an incredibly brave statement. The young women in the video covered their own hair with wigs, keeping themselves technically in line with local Islamic law, and kept clothing around so they could cover up if seen from neighboring buildings. One of the videos stars, identified only as Neda, said, “We were really afraid. Whenever somebody looked out of a window or someone passed by, we ducked behind a door to make sure we were not seen.”

The makers of the video, forced to apologize on state television

Neda and her compatriots were right to be afraid. Six people involved with making the video were arrested and forced to appear on state television, testifying that they were tricked and duped into making the video. It is unclear what consequences the filmmakers will suffer beyond public humiliation, and a hashtag, #FreeHappyIranians is emerging to protest their detention. Pharrell, to his credit, has tried to call attention to the situation:

It’s clear from Neda’s interview with Iran Wire that the intention behind the video is precisely Fontaine and Fersing’s intention. ““We wanted to tell the world that the Iranian capital is full of lively young people and change the harsh and rough image that the world sees on the news.” They chose a middle-class Tehran home to make the point that ordinary Iranians, not just the elite, were happy, creative, modern and globally engaged. And the video, with subtitles and credits in English, was clearly created for a global audience, designed to be part of the International Day of Happiness, though it was turned in too late for inclusion: “We want to tell the world that Iran is a better place than what they think it is. Despite all the pressures and limitations, young people are joyful and want to make the situation better. They know how to have fun, like the rest of the world.”

Perhaps a video that asserts that you and your friends are part of the wider world is political only if your nation has consciously withdrawn from that world. Perhaps it’s political any time your city, your country and your culture are misunderstood or ignored by the rest of the world. We Are Happy From is cultural politics in the best sense of the word, a good-natured assertion that what brings us together is more important than what divides us. That the Tehran video has led Pharrell to a different type of tears is a reminder of how powerful and threatening this sort of statement can be.

Electric cello and shared mobile phones Fri, 23 Oct 2009 13:23:38 +0000 Continue reading ]]> I’m blogging from Camden, Maine, at the wonderful Pop!Tech conference. This year’s a special treat. My wife, the lovely Velveteen Rabbi, and I are team-blogging, trading off posts. You can read her posts on her website, or just read all of ours on the Pop!Tech site, where Michelle Riggen-Ransom has been doing brilliant work thus far. There’s lots of bloggers in the crowd and on twitter – follow the #poptech tag for lots of different perspectives.

Zo Keating is a cellist who’s more than a cellist. Formerly of rock cello band Rasputina, she’s now an innovative classical composer and performer. Using her instrument and a small pile of electronics – and heavy doses of creativity – she creates rich, layered textures that some have termed “avant-cello”. She opens the conference alone on stage, adding deep, lovely layers to a piece that resolves itself into “Amazing Grace”. Mac laptop at her side, tapping floor pedals as she goes, she draws themes from the cello, which repeat then recede into a shimmering background. It’s a meditative, slightly solelm and deeply beautiful start to the second day of the conference.

Zo Keating, photo by Kris Krg

(Watching the video feed from the lounge, the cameras capture her heavily taped left fingers on the fretboard. For a moment, her hands look like those of a boxer or an offensive lineman, a reminder, with her fraying bow, of the rigors of making music.)

Andrew Zolli, our host, mentions that he had initially invited Zo to be part of the Pop!Tech audience, but that she’d been so moved by his idea of opening each day with American music that she volunteered to perform.

Pop!Tech social innovation fellow Nigel Waller is CEO of movirtu, a socially-responsible company dedicated to providing “mobile for the next billion”. He promises that on this morning’s session on “mind shifts” that he’s going to change how we think about the mobile phone. He asks us to imagine sharing a mobile phone in a family – a family in Kibera, Nairobi, where a phone is shared by a father (a carpenter), a mother and a daughter (who’s boyfriend the father doesn’t like.)

There’s 3.5 billion people with mobile phones today, and an additional billion sharing phones. The people who don’t own phones spend an astonishing amount of money – 5-30% of their income – on phones. Waller suggests that you can reduce costs to an individual of $6 per person per month with a phone and increase their income by $5. We could get more mobile phones out there if we could reduce handset costs. To a very poor person, a $25 handset is as inaccesable as a $5000 handset would be to us. There’s disincentives for mobile operators to bring these people online as they’re low revenue users.

Waller’s big idea is to put mobile phone functionality into a cloud. Users who share a mobile phone can have independent lines, but access that account from everywhere. This model might actually make significant money for mobile phone operators. Working with NGOs, universities and testing in labs in South Africa, the system is ready to go, and Waller believes that the model could serve a million African customers this year.

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Ars Electronica: A few of my favorite things Thu, 10 Sep 2009 01:33:06 +0000 Continue reading ]]> I was walking in Linz with my friend Kristen Taylor. She’s a talented videoblogger and doesn’t leave home without her HD Flip camera. As we watched fireworks over the Danube, she pointed out that just carrying a still camera leaves you incapable of capturing some of the most experiences you have while travelling.

I spent Sunday wandering art exhibitions in Linz and discovered that she’s totally, completely right. Almost without exception, my favorite pieces of artwork made noise and moved, and my cheap digital SLR doesn’t do them justice. But here they are, in their grainy, pixelated glory.

“Headbang Hero” by Tiago Martins, Ricardo Nascimento and Andreas Zingerle. Like Guitar Hero, the game encourages you to score points by wearing a controller (a dreadlocked wig) and banging your head in time to the music. Unlike Guitar Hero, the game issues a printed report on the potential health damage your headbanging has caused, and urges you “to learn how to play a cool instrument, like a flute or maybe the shamisen.”

“Quartet”, by Jeff Lieberman and Dan Paluska, was one of the winners of an award of distinction in last year’s Ars Electronica Golden Nica awards. It’s a robotic music ensemble, currently installed within the Ars Electronica center in Linz, and it’s utterly hypnotic to watch. The melodic sounds are produced by a set of 35 tuned wineglasses, rotating on individual turntables and gently played by robotic fingers, and by a “ballistic marimba”, an instrument that looks like a percussion section designed by Rube Goldberg. The marima is played by a set of rubber balls, fired by air cannons (I think) about two meters into the air before landing on 42 tuned wooden keys. An “ethnic percussion ensemble” keeps the beat, and it’s a quartet, because you can “play” by visiting and entering a brief theme into the interface, which will be expanded into a three-minute composition, performed in Linz and streamed as video to you.

The Ars Electronica Center features a video installation space called “Deep Space” – it uses a number of projectors and mirrors to create a screen that covers a two-story tall wall, and about half the floor of the venue. This allows for videos that feel extremely immersive – objects sweep and flow over you as they rise up from the floor to the screen. It’s pretty much the perfect place to show Ryoji Ikeda’s data.tron, a gorgeous video of algorithmically-generated black and white images, accompanied by an aggresive, noisy digital score. The video above shows a section of the piece as it’s projected onto my jeans.

Sunday night featured the Grand Concert, “Pursuit of the Unheard” at the Ars Electronica festival, a moveable feast of concerts that spanned five venues in two buildings and one park. One of the highlights for me was a performance on an early synthesizer designed by Robert Moog for composer Max Brand.

The instrument is a beast – a pair of consoles, a set of four pedals, and an array of boards filled with knobs and dials to tune the circuits Moog built for Brand in the late 1950s and early 1960s. It was on display as an art object in the ground floor of the Brucknerhaus, where many of the conference sessions took place, and moved upstairs to a small hall for a performance of a work by Elisabeth Schimana, performed by Manon Liu Winter and Gregor Ladenhauf – the work, needless to say, was composed specifically for this one of a kind synthesizer.

I was too blown away by the first movement of the piece – walls of nasty, thick, growling sound produced by rapid, repeated rhythmic figures – to pick up my camera – the video is from the second, quieter section, and features a projection of the keyboard, pedals and knobs being manipulated.

Actually, my very favorite show at Ars Electronica was the one I couldn’t film, an exhibition at the Lentos Museum called See This Sound. It featured an overwhelming number of artworks that focus on making sound visible or otherwise tangible, and in exploring our relationships to sound, music, noise, etc.

Laurie Anderson's hand phone table

The image for the show posters and catalog is of Laurie Anderson’s Hand Phone Table. You seat yourself at the table in an otherwise silent room, place your elbows in the shallow depressions in the tabletop and clamp your hands over your ears. Gently, quietly, you begin to hear music inside your head. Your elbows are touching small, vibrating surfaces, and your bones convey the sound through your body into your head, despite the fact that you can’t “hear” it in any conventional sense. Mindblowing. I want to build one.

A very long day’s worth of looking at art and listening to strange music helped remind me of two critical things:
– It was a very good decision for me to drop out of art school in 1994
– That shouldn’t stop me from making music, or even better, building strange things that make music

And that alone was probably worth the trip.

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