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Arts and Entertainment

Who Is The World?

Local Label Yaala Yaala Brings Malian Music To Westerners--And Controversy To Its Own Doorstep

Michael Northrup
Jack Carneal (pictured with the Yaala Yaala fan club)

By Bret McCabe | Posted 9/19/2007

"These are actually fishing line," says Jack Carneal, referring to the strings of the ngoni he brings into the living room of his home off Cold Spring Lane in North Baltimore. He sits on the couch and puts the elongated pear-shaped stringed instrument between his legs, those fishing lines facing him. "You hold it like this," he explains. "This one is out of tune, and I never really got how you tune it. These guys would put these strings in their mouth and pull." He then demonstrates how it's played--with the thumbs, almost as if finger-popping a double bass. The sound, even out of tune, is a booty-moving warm boom.

During the school year, Carneal, 40, is a lecturer in the English department at Towson University. Local musicians and fans might recognize him as the longtime drummer behind erstwhile City Paper contributor Ned Oldham in the Anomoanon. Most recently, though, Carneal is being praised and put in the cross hairs for his Yaala Yaala imprint, a Drag City-distributed label through which he is releasing music he recorded and procured during a year spent living in the rural town of Bougouni, Mali, while his wife studied rural education on a grant from 1999 and 2000. The first three Yaala Yaala releases--Bougouni Yaalali, Daouda Dembele, and Pekos/Yoro Diallo--are dispatches from and journeys into an instantly provocative world of rippling rhythms and inescapable forward drive.

Bougouni Yaalali, in fact, is a set of field recordings Carneal made casually on MiniDisc. "One day I was walking around and I saw a friend of mine, who invited me to walk with him," Carneal recalls. "We ended up at a checkers [match]--these guys were just sitting outside in the shade playing checkers. So we watched them play, and one of the guys had an ngoni.

"I guess it was comparable to going to a party and having somebody strumming on a guitar," Carneal continues. "He was playing the ngoni and started passing it around, and I ended up recording a few guys playing."

Like all three Yaala Yaala releases, Bougouni Yaalali comes with sparse liner notes or credits. One of Carneal's photos adorns the cover--in this case of young children playing outside--a single square piece of paper on which the very few facts about the recording are shared. The tracks aren't named, none of the musicians is named, and there are no studio credits, producer's notes, recording dates, or thank yous. It offers none of the proprietary licensing and legal info that turn CD tray cards into mini booklets. All that you know is that it was recorded in 1999 and '00 in Bougouni and Bamako at "[h]ouse parties, soundtracks to checkers games, fêtes, in the shade of a mango tree while temperatures hovered around 115."

All the CDs really offer is the music, which more than speaks for itself. "I just reacted to it in a very visceral way," Carneal says. "I just really enjoyed listening to it. I sensed something in it that seemed very vibrant and likable, and it wasn't until later that my Western mind starting thinking, well, this music is in 4/4 and that's pretty interesting, or this music has melody based on a very familiar scale. And it was only later that I said to myself, Wow, this ngoni is maybe the funkiest instrument ever created."

If only pure appreciation were enough. Since the CDs began seeping into online record stores and reviews started appearing in June and July, Carneal has found himself embroiled in discussions about the possible exploitation of artists by ethnomusicology and the so-called world music industry in general. The Yaala Yaala CDs have been accused of reaping profit off the artistic labor of Third World culture--particularly in the British music magazine The Wire. Clive Bell's review in the June 2007 issue was actually quite positive about the music, merely skeptical of Carneal's motives. "It's a shame not to be told a little more about it, or to have it muffled by patronizing assumptions about happy-go-lucky Africans," Bell wrote about the series' almost nonexistent liner notes.

Historically, as a Westerner listening to a recording from another culture that has been made for retail sale in the West, you're typically getting one of two things: ethnomusicology--field recordings made by a person visiting some remote location for scholarly purposes--or a professional (or would-be professional) artist recording in a French or Belgian studio and marketed here as "world music." Smithsonian Folkways recordings are a chief example of the former, covering anything from Eastern European Gypsy music to traditional Jewish music; examples of the latter include albums from the likes of vocalist Salif Keita and singer/guitarist Ali Farka Touré.

Keita and Touré, in fact, are Malian artists who became international stars in the worldwide market. But as Carneal discovered when moving to Mali in 1999, although such names are known, they're not always what people listen to.

"I really loved Malian music before I went there," Carneal says. "Ali Farka Touré--the big names--stuff like that. But I spent a year in Mali listening to endless music, everyone I meet I want to talk about music with, and not once did Amadou and Mariam come up. They're great, their records are very fun to listen to. But no one there mentioned them, which, to me, was very interesting, because--during the course of a conversation all these names would come up, people they liked, people they weren't so crazy about."

Mali has become a hotbed for global music, with everybody from Ry Cooder and John Lee Hooker to Manu Chao and Damon Albarn traveling to Mali to play with local musicians. Carneal, though, wasn't trying to hop onto some bandwagon. When he and his wife and son returned from Mali and settled in Baltimore, all Carneal had was his own MiniDisc recordings and the cassette tapes of local music he bought in the Bougouni market. The idea of putting them out didn't even occur to him until years later. Like any music fan, he traded mixtapes and CDs with friends--one of whom is Drag City founder Dan Koretzky, who, starting last year, suggested they put them out for other people to hear.

The Yaala Yaala model is the Sun City Girls' Sublime Frequencies imprint, which releases a smorgasbord of recordings from far corners of the globe. The same ethical question has been raised regarding both enterprises: Are they capitalizing on the creative labor of obscure non-Western artists? In fact, Yoro Diallo, a fairly renown musician whose work appears on one Yaala Yaala disc, has spoken out on behalf of the Malian office of author's rights about music piracy. Usually the recorder/pirating distributor--in this case, Carneal--is assumed to be making money without the artists consent.

Carneal is quick to point out that he has tried to contact the musicians he's released so far--in fact, he has planned a trip back to Mali this December to meet with a few musicians to reach an agreement for release. He has also formed the Yaala Yaala Rural Musicians' Collective into which all profits from CD sales will go. "I'm hoping to go over with some money and give it to the artists," he says.

But he acknowledges that any profits are going to be small, as music distribution has so radically changed over the past decade. Just because Yaala Yaala is working with rural Africans doesn't mean they're automatically being shystered by a crooked businessmen with a get-rich quick scheme; more poignantly, nobody--nobody--is getting rich by selling albums in 2007.

"I will be lucky to make any money off this--any, zero," Carneal says. "We're covering mastering, manufacturing, production, and distribution. And I am totally in the hole right now. If I make my money back, fine. And if I don't, then I'll keep on doing it.

"The major world music distribution system that enriches this infinitesimal portion of the population of musicians in a country like Mali is a good thing," he continues, referring to the likes of established artists like Keita and the late Touré. But the kind of releases that Yaala Yaala and Sublime Frequencies are putting out, he contends, are part of "an admirable and inevitable movement--there is so much great music out there that needs to be heard. The internet has blown apart so many old paradigms of music distribution, and in many ways made the old paradigms seem kind of ridiculous. There's another label, called Mississippi Records, they actually have a thing on the back of their LPs that says, `Record everything you can and give it to as many people as possible.'"

Certainly Carneal found that his Malian friends were just as hungry for interesting sounds as he was. "My friends back in the United States were voracious listeners of music, and I found people in this incredibly rural town had the same attitudes of being very curious about other styles of music," he recalls. "This one friend of mine [in Mali] loved Led Zeppelin, he loved Bob Dylan, Deep Purple, and ['70s prog group] Argent. He would play a Led Zeppelin tape and then play a tape of local folk music, and to him, it was very similar--this desire to hear any kind of music that sounds good to him."

In fact, as Carneal discovered, any exploitation in this situation runs both ways. "The `commercial' Led Zeppelin tape my friend had included the sounds of the record needle dropping at the beginning and stuck in the groove during fade-out," he explains in an e-mail. "Recorded straight from a record somewhere, slapped onto a bunch of tapes with a Xeroxed photo on the front, sent to numerous West African countries, et voilà!"

Ultimately, it's a common fact of the actual global music market: People find a way to share the music they like--with money changing hands only as needed to keep music in circulation.

"I have no idea how much money Drag City makes," Carneal says. "But the people who run it are into making just enough money to continue putting out music. Isn't that what we're trying to do? Isn't that the point of being an independent label--trying to bring interesting music to people?"

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