maandag 2 juli 2018

The flexatone (and reggae)

The world of percussion instruments is, at least in the world of modern pop music, largely one of “crucial details”. The wide range of large and small instruments in the percussion family used in many musical genres offers countless interesting sonic possibilities.

These possibilities have been used widely in various genres, though one can say that the variation and use differs per genre. Some genres are by themselves more percussive, or allow more experimentation (e.g. fusion, jazz-rock, Dub Reggae) than others, depending also on artists and musicians, of course.

In mainstream Blues, Jazz, Rock, Pop, Heavy Metal, or Country & Western, not so much extra percussion is used, beyond – say – the quite accepted and spread tambourine. Regarding mainstream Soul, the tambourine seemed to have been used most in Motown recordings, among the percussion, despite an occasional use of conga’s or bongos. The freer, distinctive take on soul by Curtis Mayfield, however, allowed a free spirit like ‘Master’ Henry Gibson (Mayfield’s percussionist) to add more extensively a wide range of percussion (conga, rototom, bongos a.o.), often in the same song. Percussion is also creative in Tom Waits’ more experimental work (like on the album Swordfish Trombones). The same applies to a free-minded Funk band like Funkadelic.

I am primarily a Reggae fan though, and that genre is largely less mainstream than the ones I mentioned till now. Therein too, percussion is – to degrees – quite widely used, but as in other genres of course differing in degree per artist, band, or “sound”.

IDIOPHONES

There are of course different types of percussion instruments. Let’s say that the definition of percussion in this case is all rhythmic instruments outside the (trap) drum kit/set, so commonly used now in modern pop music. Strictly speaking, this definition is incorrect (percussion can apply to all rhythmic “struck” instruments, including that drum set), but more specifically one can use the academic term “idiophones” for those small instruments like scrapers, bells, shakers and others, made to “vibrate” as a whole, setting it thus apart from instruments using strings or membranes. The latter – membranophones – of course include drums, also considered percussion.

In this post I will focus on one specific idiophone instrument. Idiophones can be made to vibrate in different ways, that’s why they distinguish between “struck”, “friction”, or “plucked” instruments. Relatively most of these idiophones are “struck” in one way or the other, and on one of these I am going to focus now: the “Flexatone” (also spelled as Flex-a-tone).

To be precise, the Flexatone is as percussion instrument an “indirectly struck idiophone”, as Wikipedia also puts it.

I am playing now for several years several percussion instruments, having started with serious lessons first in playing membranophones – or simpler said: hand drums – of Afro-Cuban origin: the well known Bongos and Conga. This was soon followed by other, African drums, like the Djembe, Ashiko, and Talking Drum, and other drum types.

In this stage, other percussion instruments, the said idiophones, were a kind of a side-path, though I practiced with it, and had quite some of these idiophones, using them and recording with them, alongside drums. They only seemed a side-path, or at least soon ceased to be. Always combining them with drums, they became more crucial in my musical compositions (which I called “percussion instrumentals”), combining with the perhaps more “driving” drums, but equally crucial in the whole, for me.

Bells (cowbells), shakers (of different kinds), scrapers, thumb pianos, woodblocks, tambourines, cuicas, balafon, rattles, a.o., I thus used from early on. Some of these commonly used in genres like Reggae, Latin, Funk, Afrobeat a.o., and therefore less “new” or “remarkable”.

Such idiophones – scrapers, shakers, thumb piano’s, balafons, rubbed drums, blocks a.o. - are practically as old as man kind, to be found in ancient African musical traditions, and on other continents too. “Thumb pianos”, also known academically as "lamellophones", or by African terms as kalimba or mbira, seem to be specifically African, while shakers, “scraper-like” or “rubbed drum” instruments, are equally traditionally found in both Africa and among the Amerindians. They have a long history there, from way before colonialism and slavery. For that reason, they are common in various genres throughout Latin America.

I love all these instruments, appreciating naturally their crucial cultural, founding and rhythmic function. Yet as time progressed, inventive humans with more means, started in more modern times to come up with “new” percussion instruments, albeit derived from existing ones. The same occurred too, especially in Western countries, with other instruments (horns, string instruments, pianos), largely therefore “modernizations”.

FLEXATONE

The Wikipedia article on the Flexatone describes it as one such later invention, patented first in the 1920s in Britain and soon after the US, and used early on as “funny sound effect”, for theatrical use rather, but also in jazz music circles.

The 1920s is of course, compared to the ancient drums, scrapers, xylophones, shakers, bells, or wood blocks, relatively new. Yet this Flexatone has the “musical saw” as predecessor, going historically somewhat further back and to more authentic (e.g. Russian) folk music. Added to this, however, are two wooden balls on either side, thus sounding when the “metal blade” as such is pressed/struck by thumb, combining thus a musical/singing saw with bell/glockenspiel-like sounds, with glissando (or trembling, quivering) effects.

Based on existing models, again, yet quite original as such, this Flexatone, as it appeared since the 1920s.

The history of the Flexatone is quite remarkable, as after it got patented in New York, the US in 1924, it soon got associated with Jazz music, where it – as some put it – could “make jazz jazzier”.

Oddly, Hitler’s Nazi regime in Germany banned the Flexatone, along with other instruments (cowbells, brushes), for being (I quote) “alien to the German spirit” or “Aryan musicality”. This was part of a wider censorship of and attack at Jazz, a genre which the Nazi’s detested.

The full set of Nazi rules for Jazz musicians who wanted to perform then (1930s, 1940s) issued, which were actually enforced, makes – in hindsight – absurd reading, but is also cultural policy at its most racist.

The detailed nature of the instructions (e.g. “at most 10% of syncopation..”) makes it absurd, alongside of course racist (here both anti-Semite, and anti-Black), and hateful, as could be expected.

See for that – specifically rules issued during the Nazi occupation in Czechoslovakia from 1938 to 1945 - this page:

https://boingboing.net/2012/03/10/nazi-rules-for-jazz-performers.html

The flexatone was thus prohibited specifically by the Nazi’s: I do not know if that is sad or funny. It makes me want to play it more, I know that, haha. (Hashtag # consideringthesource..)

FLEXATONE AND ME

Relatively recently, I have already taken up playing the Flexatone too, learning more and more how to play it, and about its interesting musical possibilities. I even brought it to (public) jam sessions, and recorded with it in compositions, by now. Since I play one, naturally, I started to focus on it more, noticed it more in music I listened to. About the last year, as I write this, I thus paid more attention to it in music.

USE IN MUSIC AND REGGAE

I am, as said, a Reggae fan, so heard it relatively more in that genre. In fact, it is used quite commonly in Reggae. Quite regularly in Roots Reggae from the 1970s and 1980s too (and later) for instance, where it was not “standard”, but regularly employed by several active studio percussionists in Reggae (Scully, Sticky, Sky Juice, and Bongo Herman), and younger percussionists (of which Sidney Wolfe and Denver Smith can be mentioned, as well as the even younger Hector Lewis (b. 1990), Chronixx’s percussionist). Just as one more possible sound and instrument available for these old- and new-generation of Jamaican percussionists.

The Wikipedia article on the Flexatone mentions the use of the Flexatone in classical music, but in modern pop recordings too, in various genres. It gives an interesting list of songs, but fails to mention any Reggae song, while there are several examples. Like I said, though, Reggae is less mainstream than those other genres.

The cover song – a fine cover, I must say – of Johnny B. Goode by Peter Tosh, reached the mainstream more, and uses the Flexatone (subtly in the mix), but not even this song was mentioned in the Wikipedia article.

Maybe you guessed it, but I am going to fill that void a bit, in this post. Not much use in repeating a (or even several) Wikipedia article(s) here, of course, which are publicly available to all already. Simply search flexatone in Wikipedia, and you got the same information. I am going to broaden it toward reggae, though.

The list as part of the Wikipedia article includes Funkadelic’s Back In Our Mind. I remember that song from my brother’s album, and remember I liked that song. On it, the Flexatone is quite prominent, not “drowned in the mix”, as elsewhere, or only heard in the intro or bridges of songs, but actually “carrying” the song (with mainly a 5-3 pattern/riff). Some more songs in that list also have a quite prominent presence of the Flexatone.

FLEXATONE IN REGGAE LIST

The same can be said when limiting oneself to the Reggae genre. Overall, the use of the Flexatone is regular and not uncommon. Some percussion sounds are relatively more common in Reggae (besides hand drums, say: idiophones), for instance shakers, woodblock, or the scrapers. Some reggae percussionists (before and now) also like rattle sounds, such as from the “vibra-slap” instrument.

The Flexatone is heard here and there too and not so rare, more or less as frequent as, say, the cuíca friction drum, I discussed elsewhere on my blog.

Perhaps it is even more frequently used than more rarely used instruments (I know even examples of “castanet” use in some Reggae songs, after all, and a few examples of “talking drum” use, but not many), because it is hard to give and exhaustive list of all Reggae songs with the Flexatone: still simply too much, plus also hard to study. The only way to examine this is by listening, because hardly ever are separate, specific percussion instruments used mentioned in song or album credits; these are all categorized simply under percussion, with no specificities.

I listened and listen quite some Reggae, and keep quite up to date, so a sensible list that is illustrative is quite possible. To call it “representative” would be saying too much, though: too many examples I might have missed or forgotten, which is inevitable. I can give examples of different decades (excluding Peter Tosh’s Johnny B. Goode, as I already mentioned it).

Since I do not play the Flexatone for too long (over a year now) I did not focus on it so much specifically before, I am only human. That also plays a role.

Still, an illustrative (if somewhat arbitrary) list can be like this:

  • Gregory Isaacs – Motherless Children (1980) 
  • Gregory Isaacs – Victim / Mr Music Man (album Victim, 1987) 
  • Gregory Isaacs – Mr. Know It All (1979) 
  • Burning Spear – Should I (album Jah Kingdom, 2002) 
  • Burning Spear - Reggae Physician/Come In Peace (album Appointment with His Majesty, 1997) 
  • The Mighty Diamonds – Diamonds & Pearls (album Deeper Roots, 1979) 
  • Prince Lincoln Thompson – Spaceship (album Natural Wild, 1980) 
  • Gideon Jah Rubaal – Judgement Time (recorded at Channel One, 1975-1979) 
  • Pablo Moses – I & I Naw Bow (album In The Future, 1983) 
  • The Wailing Souls – Helmet of Salvation/Sunrise Till Sunset (album Stranded, 1984) 
  • The Itals – No Call Dread Name/My Woman/Don’t Blame It On Me (album Rasta Philosophy, 1985) 
  • Wiss – Equal Rights/Reach So Far (album Mr. Sunshine, 1985) 
  • The Abyssinians – Ethiopia (album 19.95 + tax, 1996) 
  • Israel Vibration – My Brother’s Keeper (album: On The Rock, from 1997) 
  • The Gladiators (Albert Griffiths &) – Follow You (album Something A Gwaan, 2000). 
  • Protoje – Hail Rastafari (2013) 
  • Iba Mahr – Get Up And Show (2017, on Better Days Riddim)

These are chosen at random, but not entirely. Like in the Wikipedia list of Flexatone used in songs in other genres, its use differs from “prominent” to subtle. Gregory Isaacs’ Mr Music Man is one of the Reggae songs that I know of with the most prominent Flexatone use (perhaps because of the song’s “sparse”, empty Rockers sound, and few other percussion and instruments), along with his earlier song (1979) Motherless Children.

In Mr Music Man – a song I also played as vinyl DJ/selecta a few times - the Flexatone has a nice, groovy function, with bouncy tones, starting on the 1 (of 4/4). Often the Flexatone sets in on the First count of 4/4 in Reggae songs, but those are common musical standards of structure: so do often other instruments (start at the One of 4/4 with a pattern).

In Israel Vibration’s My Brother’s Keeper, the Flexatone is used more subtly, also softer or “buried”/”drowned” more in the mix. The same applies to the Wailing Souls songs I mention from the 1984 Stranded album: to detect its use one almost needs a high-quality headphone, though its nice “chorus introducing” role in Sunrise Till Sunset is audible. On the mentioned Israel Vibration song its use is on the other hand more rhythmic.

I also give examples of songs Burning Spear later albums, where the Flexatone is quite audible, though somewhat subtle and buried in the mix. Burning Spear uses quite some varied percussion in his later albums, including idiophones.. They are not even very soft. Percussion is still somewhat “drowned” in the relatively “fuller” sound of these Burning Spear albums (relatively many instruments used, percussion and otherwise). In these examples, the Flexatone plays a kind of “counter-rhythm” in the African tradition, though not without atmospheric aspects. The Flexatone is also a flexible instrument, haha.

On the Itals’ songs I mention (from the 1985 Rasta Philosophy album), the Flexatone is used by veteran percussionists – as on other of the examples I mention - Scully and Bongo Herman, but somewhat buried in the mix, or at least along with quite some other percussion instruments. It adds nicely to the feel, though, and has a particular good effect (during changes in the song) on the fine song No Call Dread Name, in my opinion, on that album.

DUB

Dub Reggae, as more instrumental form, is largely derived from reggae since the 1970s, so if a vocal song had that Flexatone already, it appears in the (remixed, instrumental) Dub version of it. There are cases where it ended up louder in the mix, though.

The creative genius in Dub, and its inventor, King Tubby, used it – as other producers, like Jammy, Lee “Scratch” Perry) – as extra sound in Dubs, even if not in the music of the original vocal song. The “quivering” metal, glissando tone might fit in with that genre so rich in sound effects, although it is often as “introducing” a Dub tune, so mainly in the beginning or during transitions, when it is added, though in cases also throughout the song as part of its rhythmical structure.

HOW USED

Well, softer or louder in the mix is one thing. Another aspect I also already hinted at: used rhythmically, as part of the rhythm/groove, or more atmospherically (as sound effect) or even melodically, as the Flexatone – because of its very nature – allows this.

It requires more skills to use this Flexatone beyond atmospheric or “sound effect” level – or as a mere “introduction”, also a kind of sound effect. This is self-evident. To actually (help) “carry” a song throughout with the Flexatone, you need actual musical skills. Such rhythmic and musical knowledge tends to be present among percussionists with some experience, as those active in Reggae music, before and now. So its use is often rhythmic, and combined with other percussion instruments (mostly). On Diamonds and Pearls of the Mighty Diamonds its use is more rhythmic, whereas on the 2017 New Roots song by Iba Mahr, Get Up And Show, its use is also nice, but rather atmospheric, or harmonic/melodic, in the whole. Often its use is something between (rhythmic, atmospheric, melodic), due to its inherent flexibility (as other percussion instruments).

I had to listen more closely to Protoje’s song Hail Rastafari to ensure it was actually a Flexatone used in it. There is an occasional “glissando metal” sound (kind of introductory on the 1 of 4/4 beat, as in other songs), which might as well be a triangle or other bell. The use in Hail Rastafari is sparse, simple, and rhythmic, but still nice. The modern New Roots genre within Reggae, has more a “live band” focus (also in studio recording), than the Digital dancehall/Ragga period before, allowing luckily more space for varied percussion, being acoustic instruments. That is also logical, in a sense. I noticed the use of specifically the Flexatone in Iba Mahr’s Get Up and Show, though, because I liked and like that song so much. One of my favourites, released in that year (2017). I therefore listened more intensively and repeatedly to that song.

YOUNGER PERCUSSIONISTS

I am pleased to notice, anyway, that the younger percussionists in current Jamaican music, continue the varied percussion (drums and idiophones) use of their veteran predecessors since the 1970s, like Uzziah “Sticky” Thompson, Noel “Scully” Simms, Bongo Herman (Davis) and others. One of these new generation percussionist is the already mentioned Hector Lewis of Chronixx’s Zinc Fence Redemption band, a “young lion” born in 1990. Chronixx very recent concert in the Paradiso venue Amsterdam of Friday, the 29th of June, 2018 (so shortly before I write this) was eventually sold out, showing Chronixx’s increased popularity. Perhaps good for Reggae’s development, I gather. Hector Lewis played along in this concert, with a wide percussion set (“Afro-Cuban basic”: three conga’s, bongos, and further various idiophones).

The same a bit “atmospheric” use as in Iba Mahr’s Get Up and Show applies to Gregory Isaacs Mr. Know It All (1980), whereas on Isaacs’ great 1979 song Motherless Children the Flexatone is used more rhythmically, providing combined with the woodblock or jamblock also a kind of “counter-rhythm”, giving the song a polyrhythmic (“African”) rhythmic feel, as in also Burning Spear songs. I find that use very interesting.

The use on the later, fine Abyssinians song Ethiopia (1996), of the Flexatone, is quite extensive and prominent in the song’s whole, again with both a (counter)rhythmic and atmospheric function. One could even say that the song would not feel the same without it. The crucial detail of percussion.

CULTURE AND OTHER ARTISTS

I further – just as another example – also seem to notice the (subtle) use of the Flexatone in Culture’s 1996 album One Stone, as part of wider percussion. As an iconic reggae band, Culture also needs attention here, I think. On this Culture album the percussion instruments are somewhat soft in the mix, the sound more aimed at drum and bass, seemingly, though as often percussion still adds crucial touches to the general sound, if subtly. You hardly hear it, but you still hear and feel it. On some songs of this One Stone album I seem to hear – softly - the “glissando”, characteristic of the Flexatone, setting it thus apart from other (metal) bells used. The same applies to Culture’s 1999 album Payday (with similar mixing choices and “drum and bass”-focussed sound).

Like on Burning Spear albums from roughly the same period, a wide variety of percussion (drums and idiophones) tends to be used on several songs, but softer in the mix than in Burning Spear albums: a bit more emphasis on the “driving bass and drum” – somewhat understandable - , requiring therefore closer inspection to distinguish percussion sounds. At least on these Culture albums One Stone and Payday, which are further nonetheless overall nice albums, in my opinion (despite subdued percussion, haha).

Finding all use of the Flexatone in Reggae is simply too difficult and time-consuming. I would do that if I got paid for it, perhaps. Omissions are inevitable. I mention in my list a later Gladiators song, but maybe the Gladiators used it before in earlier recordings, as might have done Israel Vibration, Burning Spear, the Wailing Souls, Abyssinians and others in also earlier recordings, perhaps even already in the earlier 1970s. So might have done, using the Flexatone, other Reggae artists (Dennis Brown, Ijahman Levi, Black Uhuru, Bunny Wailer, Alton Ellis, Twinkle Brothers, the Congos a.o.) I forgot to mention. Too many to mention.

Also the newer New Roots artists, besides Chronixx, (Sizzla, Luciano, Bushman, Buju Banton, Anthony B., Tarrus Riley, Chuck Fender, Richie Spice, Lutan Fyah, Queen Ifrica, Iba Mahr, Morgan Heritage etcetera etcetera), and the Riddims made for their songs, may have used the Flexatone.

If someone reading this, knows of good examples of Flexatone use in songs by these great artists I haven't mentioned, I of course would love to hear about it.

From the top of my head, I do not know of any use of the Flexatone in Bob Marley & the Wailers’songs, but I might be mistaken here too. As I mentioned in another blog post: the percussion is in Bob Marley songs relatively limited and subdued (softer), when compared to other Reggae, but it is still there.

My list is just illustrative and informative, and not meant as exhaustive nor as representative as such. Yet, I argue it gives a good overview, examples of its use.

FINAL CONCLUSIONS AND REFLECTIONS

It is still possible – and useful - to draw some conclusions from this general analysis of Flexatone use, as part of percussion in Reggae.

One can overall conclude, that Reggae is a music genre with relatively much use of extra, acoustic percussion (beyond the drum kit), and as part of that the use of the Flexatone is not uncommon.

The Flexatone is used in Reggae from different decades since the 1970s, both in Old and New Roots, as in the 1980s Rub-a-Dub or Rockers sound, and in new (not too digital) Reggae, after 1990. I heard it less in modern dancehall, but this is especially because that genre is more Digital, with less space for an acoustic instrument like the Flexatone. Combinations of Digital Dancehall’s basic digital rhythms, with added acoustic instruments exist out there, though.

Digitalization is also found in relatively later Reggae since the 1980s, when the synth got used more, in Early Dancehall, but even in some Roots Reggae, alongside drum, bass, guitar, or horns. On some albums the synth effects and sounds (“bleeps”, so to speak) took over the role of acoustic instruments, like percussion, leaving less space for their additions. Later, with the New Roots revival this trend was reversed luckily, to which the roles like the mentioned new-generation Jamaican percussionist in Reggae, like Hector Lewis, attest. A live-band focus, often including a percussion set, was never fully abandoned within reggae (with veteran artists like Burning Spear, Congos, Mighty Diamonds, Abyssinians a.o.), but now returned a bit with newer, younger Roots Reggae artists like Chronixx, Kabaka Pyramid, Iba Mahr, Lutan Fyah, Protoje, and even with artists with one foot also at times in Dancehall (like Buju Banton, Sizzla, Capleton a.o.): when they perform live there is often – not always - a percussion set as part of the musicians.

The Flexatone is further used for atmospheric effect, but more often rhythmically and semi-melodically, within Reggae. In the reggae songs with the Flexatone use, providing a kind of counter-rhythm with a special (glissando, saw-like) sound, is mostly its function. Its melodic possibilities are less used or explored, though tension-building, semi-melodies are heard, mostly when introducing song parts like choruses and bridges. Elsewhere, they are more in the groove, and part of a percussive, even polyrhythmic, whole, with other percussion instruments.

Its use in reggae is therefore mainly part of an African musical aesthetic, fitting the Black music genre that is Reggae.

In spite of its British/US origins (and precursors in non-African folk music), its use is mostly African, with differing rhythmic complexity.

The sound itself – despite its use - of the Flexatone, kind of a glissando bell, may not seem traditionally African to some, although metal “bells” or scrapers are used since long in African traditional music. The “singing saw” sound might seem European to some, but even that is relative.

The modern violin might have been invented as such in Northern Italy, but violin-like instruments were long common in several cultures, including in Africa. In parts with string instrument-traditions in Sahel, West Africa: the Guinee, “Griot”, region, for instance. There one also finds scraped metal instruments, or similar somewhat “quivering” sounds.

In Ethiopia’s musical culture, you have the interesting Mesenqo instrument – a single-stringed bowed lute - with similarities to a violin, only older. Other string instruments in traditional Ethiopian music, are for instance the Kissar (also found in nearby Sudan, Nubia) and Krar, with strings plucked, but also at times “twanged”. Also here, quivering, glissando sounds, not that far apart from the less old (1924) Flexatone.

Musical bows are also found in Central and Southern Africa, with a likewise quivering, glissando sound to degrees, while the talking drum also has a changeable, “gliding” pitch. Glissando, said of the Flexatone sound, means in “Italianized French” nothing else than “gliding”, by the way.

All these African instruments’ sounds, have to differing degrees sonic similarities with the “glissando/gliding” or “flexing metal” aspect of the Flexatone. I argue therefore that the flexatone does not sound very European – or out of place – within an often Africa-focussed - and at least African-influenced genre - like Reggae. Especially Rastafari-inspired Reggae artists focus on Africa also lyrically, but the origin of Reggae as music is also largely African (mixed with some European aspects), especially rhythmically, but also broader.

I can even go for a “sweeping statement”:

“The rhythmic/semi-melodic use of the Flexatone in Reggae is an African retention of the sounds of certain African traditional instruments, especially the “musical bow” (or the mouth bow), as found especially in Central and Southern Africa, a musical heritage that came with the enslaved Africans to the West, and an island like Jamaica.”

Of course, modified and limited, it still echoes here and there such ancient musical bows, and other African string and metal instruments with “glissando/gliding”–like sounds. These are also found in other Black music genres (the blue note in Blues, Jazz).

At the very least an interesting way to look at the Flexatone’s use in Reggae music..

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