Written by Parisa Eshrati
Play It By Ear is a new series by T&E writer Parisa where she shares musical discoveries along with informational tidbits, casual musings, anecdotes, and whatever other related knowledge she can pull from her rotten quarantined brain. This first edition features: Bugandan drumming ensembles, favorite Lauryn Hill freestyles, a memoriam to the great ostad Mohammed Reza Shajarian, underrated metal releases of last year, an atmospheric drum 'n bass 101, and so much more!
If you’re a millennial, you might relate to me in that you used to come home from middle school and pour your little preteen heart out into a Xanga or Livejournal blog. It’s funny to think back on the urgency I would feel writing those posts. I would take an hour out of my day to write about what we did in social studies, who I sat next to at lunch, or how I saw my crush when I was walking to the bus (and that we had even made eye contact!!!) It’s easy to now think of all those hours in front of the computer as a waste of time, but at that age, those memories were very important to me. Plus, as a millennial, the thought of sharing my life online and connecting with random strangers was far more novel and intriguing than writing in my diary. Of course, my Xanga audience only consisted of my two e-buddies that I never even met in real life. Nevertheless, I felt like I was sharing my most heartfelt thoughts and feelings with the world, and that’s all that really mattered.
Since then, I’ve (thankfully) lost the need to share every detail of my life on the internet. I’ve mostly stayed away from having a social media presence, but there’s been one aspect of all those blogging and forum days that I do miss -- and that’s sharing music. I mean yes, I run this blog where literally all we do is talk music, but there was something different about sharing songs on those old-school blogs and forums in a very casual way. It allowed for people to connect on a personal level. It was less about the intricacy of your writing, and more about sharing your passion of music and exchanging songs with people that you were getting to know as friends, one comment thread at a time.
With T&E, I’ve been doing interviews and things through a journalistic approach, but I wanted to also provide myself an unstructured space where I can pour out all the music I’m dying to share in an informal manner. I spend a lot of time being overly critical of my writing skills, so by having this casual space I'm hoping I can be more uninhibited. Now more than ever in our strange quarantined world, I just want to share music with you all with the same passion and stream-of-conscious style writing that I used to do with those Xanga blogs (minus the embarrassing details about my life, lol.) Though I still strive to become a stronger professional writer, in the interim I want to freely share my favorite songs and some thoughts with you all. I may not be the best writer, but I got a lotta heart, and pretty alright music knowledge, if I say so myself.
So, I hope this series finds a comfortable intersectionality with music sharing, music education, and personal musings. I hope you find some cool tunes to dig into along the way. And if you have responses or want to share related songs, comments are highly encouraged!
The artist that sparked the idea for this series is Nihiloxica, a “live project that harnesses the full force of the ancient Bugandan drumming tradition of Uganda and focuses it on the contemporary dancefloor through a dark, brooding lens of techno sensibility.” I don’t even remember how I came across their 2020 album Kaloli, but as soon as I heard it I wanted to share it with everyone I know.
Some background as to how dark underground techno merged with Bugandan drumming via their Bandcamp:
“The rhythmic force of the Nilotika Cultural Ensemble – a local Bugandan drum set and a troupe of powerful players – began to perform at a club night in Kampala’s blossoming electronic scene called Boutiq Electroniq (namesake of the first release on Nyege Nyege Tapes by Disco Vumbi) and here the first merging of live Bugandan drums with electronic sounds was made. The DJs at the embryonic Nyege club night would lay down electronic tracks, and Nilotika would jam along.
In 2017 Spooky-J, a jazz drummer and producer releasing on Blip Discs, and pq, a sound engineer and synthesist, came to Kampala ahead of Nyege Nyege Festival, presently in it’s third year, to write, rehearse, and record a set of live recordings that would form the group’s debut EP, Nihiloxica, that was released to widespread critical acclaim on Nyege Nyege Tapes. The sound showcased on that EP was just the beginning of a long, dark conversation between two cultures, and the language is only becoming more developed.”
It’s an incredibly dynamic album, by far one of my favorite releases of the year.
I’ve been playing a lot of Fall Guys lately, and the soundtrack has made me go back and listen to some of my favorite drum ‘n bass mixes. My go-to is, and has always been, this 2016 Soundcrash mix from LTJ Bukem:
LTJ Bukem is a legendary UK drum ‘n bass producer. He's known for his unparalleled production value and crisp, pristine sound. In the early ‘90s, he started the Good Looking Records label which pioneered the “atmospheric” subgenre of dnb. I’ve always enjoyed the atmospheric style of dnb the best, it’s dance music but also very bittersweet and nostalgic. I’d say this style is best suited for a very late night solo drive on the freeway, windows down, a late summer/early fall breeze, soaking in an afterglow of a late night out with friends, just feeling the wind and basking in the joy of carefree youth. I know that’s highly specific, but I’m sure someone out there knows what I mean by this. (Or at least I could find some comradery in this UK Rave Comments twitter account.)
If you’re interested in learning more about drum ‘n bass, I always point people to this Best of Good Looking Records compilation LTJ Bukem created on Spotify (or at least, I can’t seem to find this playlist anywhere else online.) He provides insightful commentary between each track, so it’s a great 101 to atmospheric drum ‘n bass from the master himself:
Once my friend (and T&E writer) Brittne described atmospheric drum ‘n bass as “when Mario gets a super star and he’s moving really fast and everything around him seems still.” I haven’t heard a more accurate comparison to this day.