Walking into the world of TBA:12 for the first time was a rather disorienting. The beefy security guards seemed far too on edge for an arts festival. And the staff and volunteers carried the harried and exhausted look in their eyes that I remember seeing in the mirror during the first few months of my son’s life. Smile as they might, you could tell the late nights, and the care and feeding of this event were starting to wear on them.
This mood spilled over into the leadup to the Global and Mobile Pop presentation on Monday night. Patrick Phillips, guitarist/vocalist for the band Brainstorm, talked afterwards about butting heads with the sound engineers; and Chris Kirkley, the man behind Sahel Sounds, also vented a bit after watching Ahmed Haji Weli, the vocalist and percussionist for the local Somali duo Iftin Band, struggle to get his microphone working during their first song.
It was a strange lead-up and come-down for what was an otherwise joyous celebration of African pop music and the ways in which technology is driving the spread of that sound around the globe as well as affecting how it is being created.
The presentation of these ideas had its own logic that took a few minutes to settle into. Onstage were three projection screens featuring an often exhausting stream of information and images. The screen at the center kept up a stream of videos, including a collaboration between Kirkley and sound artist Jason Urick that chopped and screwed YouTube clips of African performers, and live footage of Tuareg artist Mdou Moctor performing live for the event via Skype.
The other two screens were there to provide context for what was going on either directly onstage or on the center stage screen. One was a live stream of Tweets from the @globalandmobilepop account spelling out who was featured in the videos, and telling the story of how Sahel Sounds came to know Moctor and his work. The other was a web search being done in real time onstage by Urick, who pulled up maps, images, and Wikipedia pages to back up the tweets and the music.
As fascinating as that all was, the real centerpiece of the night was live performances by Brainstorm and Iftin Band. The former knocked out a tight four song set that showcased the trio’s facility with projecting the swirl of African pop through their Western lens. Two of the group’s songs were originals, sweetened with a dash of AutoTune, and the others were homophonically rewritten covers of two Moctor tunes.
White kids that they are, the three members of Brainstorm can’t help finding their work pumped up with some rock energy. Normally that wouldn’t faze me, but the contrast between their insistent playing and the laid back ease that Iftin Band exuded was glaring. The duo—an offshoot of the original Iftin Band, superstars of the Somali music world before the civil war—use simple instrumentation (just keyboards and percussion) to stir up a wealth of head nodding rhythms and corkscrewing melodics. It didn’t take long before a gaggle of folks huddled together by the stage to dance.
Just as they and us were all getting settled in, the Iftin Band was waving goodbye, and the lights in the auditorium came to life, leaving many visibly confused that it was all over so quickly and quietly. We all wandered into the cold September night wobbly and a little weary but armed to follow Urick’s lead and dig deeper into this obviously rich and rewarding world of music.