Roots Music Ping Pong

Alongside the expected Built To Spills, Stereolabs and Sleater-Kinneys, there were two surprises atop the college radio charts this year: a Japanese lady singing about clouds and an Athens, Georgia, band transformed by Indonesia. Neither is exceptionally groundbreaking, I'm interested to note, just further evidence of an increasing thirst for global sounds with a bohemian pedigree. It was romance enough, in the 1980s, for college DJs to see that underground sensibilities had spread to Kansas or Arizona. New Zealand noise-pop, goth tribal sounds and a few Camper Van Beethoven instrumentals were about as exotic as things got. But in the 1990s, punk's legacy has come to seem provincial, in need of cultural transfusions from far corners—proof for weirdos that we are the world, or at least could be.

Still, Takako Minekawa and Macha are firmly in the indie tradition. Neither could have existed without the Velvet Underground. (Minekawa's new album even generates some do-do-do's, though she's not the colored girl Lou Reed had in mind.) And both cross a threshold that always ensures collegiate forbearance: Operating rough-and-tumble, they do something odd and make the cake rise in the oven. Macha run around onstage, as at Irving Plaza last Tuesday, switching instruments wildly to fashion grandiose statements that might combine a rock rhythm section with zither, vibraphone, '70s keyboards and a taped re-creation of an Indonesian street parade. Minekawa sings in Japanese, English, French and all-world vocalese over tracks that blend serene minimalism (one samples its beat from a ping-pong rally) with perky good humor. These are Grade A routines, DIY-certified.

Though early copies of Macha included field recordings that Joshua McKay and Kai Riedl made during a trip to Southeast Asia, the band doesn't claim to have properly studied gamelan: They just sift its vibes, the way Girls Against Boys get off on blaxploitation, and are good enough musicians to integrate those tonalities into their rock moves. Indie rockers have trended steadily toward overt droning anyway, with VU's "What Goes On" evolving into Sonic Youth and beyond. So Macha's chimes and percussed strings are an affectation college-radio ears are prepared to welcome, and novel enough to offset some of the band's cornier buildups. This August's See It Another Way adds former Edie Brickell sideman Wes Martin, and polishes the sound toward a mannered new wave exoticism. It would be easy to dismiss them: The East has taken in plenty of rockers and fans before. But live they seemed less like dilettantes than jugglers, improbably keeping a wealth of influences from overwhelming them.

Multi-instrumentalist Takako Minekawa is both less and more grounded, a well-connected stylistic butterfly who heretofore has followed each album with a remix disc employing indie, club, and experimental musicians: Pulsars, Kid Loco, Oval, etc. The just-out Fun9 comes remixed, featuring witty grooves by boyfriend Cornelius (the best offered in a second, French version), a less impressive trio with U.S. hipsters DJ Me DJ You, and Minekawa's own watery meditations, like "Gently Waves" and "Flow in a Tide." I prefer her air meditation and CMJNo. 1 Cloudy Cloud Calculator, which includes the layered breaths and plunking chimes of "Phonobaloon Song" and "Cat House," where she plays an obedient feline—who's read Deleuze. Minekawa too might be written off, as terminally cute or an aural fashion victim, but there's a consistency to her idiosyncrasies. She joins nature whimsy, electro-minimalism, and panglobal chattiness. It works for her.

Some say the world will end in fire; some say it'll just turn into one big shopping mall. But if the global economy has littered remote backwaters with McDonald's and shoot-'em-up flicks, it's also spread Velvets albums, as part of an international process of bohemianization. The shape this will take, as the various cadres mingle as promiscuously as Minekawa remixes, is a mystery I find more seductive than the future of the Internet. Bohemians often rebel in peer-conformist ways, yet as Web-rings stretch worldwide those in-group codes will loosen too. The urge for strangeness should have an ongoing place in the new world culture. It'll be confusing to follow, longer on mixed bags like Fun9 and See It Another Way than obvious masterstrokes like Cornershop's "6 A.M. Jullandar Shere." But confusion is sex, right?

There's a record I'd recommend for anyone who finds the idea of Macha creepy: Indonesian Guitars, the 20th and final volume in Smithsonian Folkways' Music of Indonesia series. From an intense performance by a female jungga player (four-stringed guitar) to a rural parody of slick urban entertainment, it manifests the unchartable breadth of Indonesian folk culture. Yet the last track is by a group of folklorists who reject discrete traditional genres for cross-cultural patchings. Compiler Philip Yampolsky suspects such samplings are the only way older sounds can flourish as the world supporting them disappears, seeing in crossover an emerging "Indonesia" that can unite bitter ethnic rivals. I don't know if Joshua McKay would agree, or care: He grew up with his mom's earlier set of Folkways recordings in the house, and blithely calls one song "Nipplegong" because he finds the instrument name funny, in a Beavis sort of way. That's who he is; that's what his music is. You want something purer, go buy something purer.

 
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