Thursday 12 February 2009

CONCENTRATING THE MIND: Thoughts About Distribution

How did you watch the Obama Inauguration?

I had intended to find a place with a large screen, preferably full of Americans, and share the audacity of hope. After all it’s been a long time since a politician inspired that emotion. In the end I watched it from my desk. First I went to CNN. Next to the scrolling Facebook list telling me what its members were thinking and doing was a blank space where the screen should be. By 3.30PM EST CNN had served 21.3 million streams and I wasn’t one of them.

I jumped over to the BBC. They have one of the world’s most expensive web sites, more of a web city, fuelled from the billions of pounds in annual license fees. Unlike its commercial competitors I’m not begrudging the budget because the Beeb invests in R&D and the News site is the online equivalent of the World Service on radio, a beacon of factual information. But on this day they weren’t serving a video feed of an iconic moment in history, but a text feed. Hello? This is how you don’t spend my license fee? I don’t care that you might be afraid of server meltdown or – worse – protecting your TV platform. You’re not spending my money in ways I want!

So I switched to TV. I went to Zattoo, a Swiss based web site that runs a plethora of European TV channels in real time, opened the link and watched BBC1 on my laptop. It was everything I wanted, bar the company of enthusiastic Americans.

They say that content is king. Rubbish. Distribution is king. Take “Yesterday” and any other Beatles song. “Yesterday” is the most covered popular song of the last 40 years with hundreds, probably thousands, of cover versions. It’s a goldmine. No other song they wrote or recorded comes close in popularity. Carefully guarded and held back by The Beatles their songs are all equal, nothing more than potential commercial value, unequal only to the songwriters. (I doubt George rated “Savoy Truffle”, listing the contents of a chocolate box, as highly as “Something”, a hymn to his future wife – and that’s creative value, not monetary value.) But distribute them and “Yesterday” is way more valuable than any other song you want to name.

Another common metaphor is ‘music like water’, meaning it’s liquid, flowing everywhere. But how does it flow from A to B without pipes? It’s distribution that’s becoming like water. When it encounters a rock or obstruction it flows around it. CNN isn’t working? I’ll go to the BBC. They don’t have the format I want? I’ll go to Zattoo. If that hadn’t worked I would have been really old-fashioned and turned on the TV. The major content owners – music labels, film and TV studios, book publishers – wish that a dam can be built to control distribution, just as an electricity company controls dammed water, but building a dam bigger than the Internet is an impossible task. Not because a system designed to withstand nuclear attack can’t be contained, but because content is both adept at acquiring multiple start points and delivered to an end-user platform that is rapidly becoming a matter of choice.

Ask anyone with an iPhone how often they use it for Internet access. The answer, in my scientific study of questioning everyone I see carrying one, is all the time. Access has become a matter of whim, not location. When it’s your plumber pulling his iPhone out to check costs at the local hardware store you know as well it’s become a mass-market item. In its wake the phone and PDA manufacturers are introducing their own versions, giving away mobile music and offering mobile TV packages if you will not bite the Apple but buy theirs instead. The iPhone is just a fancy iPod so using it for music and video is obvious. What hasn’t been obvious is the recent growth in using other brand mobile phones as a music player – not because Sony and Nokia are spending millions trying to convince us that’s how they should be used, but because perception is changing. Radio on Nokia phones is one the brand’s most used apps. Pandora and Shazam hold the same position in iPhone apps. Music and film acquisition will follow – both legal and illegal.

You think getting music, films and TV via bit-torrent is a computer-only activity? Try googling “bit-torrent” and “mobile”. It’s also moving to TV. The guys running TV-based VOD services like Lovefilm and Joost are talking about it as an essential technology to distribute films and TV shows because it’s a very efficient way to distribute high-bandwidth content. How long before someone’s using bit-torrent on a TV VOD platform for uses the copyright holders haven’t sanctioned or even thought of?

But forget the Internet on TV, how about TV on the Internet? More than 6 million copies of the BBC’s iPlayer downloaded in a year so that people can watch TV on their laptops. Plus copycat players from the other channels. Add in a few million streams an hour from YouTube, Vimeo and all the other video sites. Factor in the growth of TV-on-mobile over the next few years…. We’re filling up the Internet with our penchant, our desire – our right! – to have TV available at whim, when we want it, on a screen that’s 3 inches in our hand, 15 inches on our lap, or 60 inches in the living room. Bit-torrent looks essential to the guys who make all this work. Recently some bright spark trying to protect his copyrights proposed that bit-torrent would soon be shut down. Dream on.

Where bit-torrent is weak is in the customer experience. Until Vuze bought Azureus there was no content interface in the app itself – unlike Limewire et al – and what they have is hardly a Wikipedia of content offering. You have to find and go to an appropriate Web site. Then you need the seeders, peers and leechers, without whom bit-torrent doesn’t work. Not a problem if you want Lady Ga-Ga or The Killers, but it could be months before the two guys with “The High Numbers at The Marquee Club 1964” are online at the same time as you. With distributed p2p networks the available content is as wide as the network – just browse through the music made public on another user’s drive and when you see something you want, get it.

With more music more often, this is important. Getting music has become a spontaneous activity, whether it’s from seeing something on a person’s hard drive, clicking a link on a bit-torrent Web site, responding to an ad from an e-music retailer, or even heard on the radio. Music is of such quantity and volume that if we don’t acquire that new discovery now it will be forgotten in the next tsunami wave of blogs, promotional emails, radio and playlists, Dime A Dozen search results, and tantalising hard drives offering more music without which we’re that much emotionally poorer. I have 16 CDs and a gigabyte of music I bought in the last year that I’ve yet to listen to, not to mention unheard concert recordings, some of which the artist actively gave away. It hasn’t slowed the river of new music flowing into my life. Apparently I’m a small fry compared to Generation i; they consume by the gigabyte, scanning it and dumping it so the next drive full can be consumed. And the record labels want to control these acquisition habits?

This is one reason music business activists are campaigning for some form of blanket license, what those no-taxation-without-representation Americans named a “music tax”, to get money from all this activity. Not just for all those unpaid copies of the 7 - 8 million official music releases in circulation but also the estimated 25 million unofficial music tracks being passed around. Saying that this is a complicated task is a massive understatement.

First of all, there is the huge majority of people online who either aren’t interested in music or whose buying habits are casual. In the olden days, the average UK shopper bought 5 CDs a year. How many are doing the same online? Can we assume that 80% or more of British Internet users don’t care about music, or buy at most 5 albums a year from iTunes? What will they say about a compulsory music license fee, being charged a second time for music they’ve already paid for? Either a system has to be created which targets only those people enjoying free music and to which they will sign up, or the license fee has to be so low that the majority will either not object or do no more than grumble. How could you make it palatable? What if it isn’t sold as a music fee but a fee to support culture?

The government on the Isle of Man is planning to do just this: charge £1 a month at ISP level for every online subscriber on the island. But where the music companies are leading, other media giants are sure to follow. German consultancy ipoque observed in 2007, from reading 1 million ISP user logs in seven countries, that 80% of illegal p2p traffic was films. It’s naïve to think film studios won’t demand a piece of the action, followed by TV companies, book publishers and anyone whose copyrighted materials are being passed around the Internet. Before you know it, that £1 will be £5 or £10. Good luck selling that as a culture fee, especially when so much film and TV consumption still happens on TV. Isn’t that why I’m paying £40 a month for a pay-TV subscription?

(At least the cable and satellite media companies selling bundled packages of pay-TV and Internet access (Sky, Virgin, etc.) are well positioned to incorporate a license fee into their billing structures.)

There’s also the perception that music purchasers will be supporting so-called pirates. If I buy my music and films, why am I subsidising Captain Jack Sparrow?

Critics say it won’t happen. Most ISPs don’t want it to happen. Government is prevaricating about legislating for it, except France, a country where the State invades so much of one’s life it’s not that surprising; I suppose it’s coincidental that the music label that sells 40% of all new popular music is owned by a French water company. In any case the EU Government has already signalled they think that in present form it’s illegal. But government must be concerned. If the principle of copyright is so widely ignored, what are the implications for patents and other intellectual property? This is an important question. There are now compact, portable machines that can make exact replicas of physical products. The US Army is considering whether to put them in the back of Humvees. When a part breaks while the car is in the field, a soldier just replicates a new part and replaces it. Imagine that in the hands of a few hundred thousand entrepreneurs with a disregard for intellectual property rights.

Tracking media files as they flow through the Internet is easy. The infrastructure is already in place. A British company called Detica has their boxes installed within every ISP, tracking files and emails, searching for terrorist activity. They can identify files down to packet level, so mp3s and mpegs pose no problem. The challenge is making sense of all the poor and non-existent metadata. How many different tracks are washing around labelled Track1, Track 3, or nothing at all? All that multiplicity of missing metadata will need to be separated and identified before rights holders can be accurately compensated.

That’s simple compared to deciding how the revenue is paid out. There are at least eight stakeholder groups involved: ISPs, mobile operators, music publishers, music labels, rights societies, songwriters, performers, and managers, each with a view of what their income should be. In the words of music consultant Ted Cohen, there are eight people at the table and they all want two-thirds. Dee Hock had the same problem in the Fifties when he created Visa, knowing that all the banks necessary to make the system viable would squabble for years over their commissions. His solution was to set up two companies, one an administration group that could take the necessary time to negotiate the financial outcome and the second to get on with the business. In the meantime, the money was held in an escrow account.

Historically, the monetising of music business disruptions – the creation of commercial radio, for example – have been settled with blanket licensing. But with so many challenges to solve this time, the odds on it becoming reality are not good. There may not be one solution. Samuel Johnston, speaking of a condemned man who wrote his autobiography in the two weeks before his execution, quipped that knowledge of one’s impending death “concentrates the mind wonderfully”. Concentration is what’s required, because if current technology doesn’t already offer enough problems, consider the distribution formats that are coming.

For instance, there’s mesh-WiFi, a citywide integrated wireless network. Emergency services have been using such systems for years and like the Internet, connections work their way around failures to ensure a 100% service. San Francisco has been considering making their current emergency mesh available to the public – after all, they paid for it. Citywide, always on, music and films downloading and streaming to me on desktop, laptop, mobile phone, wi-fi music player, Internet equipped car radio, all of them from different service do you make sense of that?

Or Bluetooth, the tech of choice for cash-strapped high schoolers. Bluetooth 3.0 will be released this year, reportedly transferring files at speeds between 100 and 480 Mb per second. It’s backwards compatible, allowing old devices to connect with new ones. At those speeds the full lossless FLAC format (which is 400 – 600 Mb an album) becomes a viable commercial format. It also means films traded in a few seconds. It means mass iPod exchanges in under a minute. It means slotting one of the new multi-gigabyte SD cards into my mobile phone and selling the music and films on it to become king of the school playground. It gives unintended meaning to the marketing phrase “Nokia Comes With Music”. What must give nightmares to the media industries is that this isn’t across a network but device to device, visible only to those involved.

Distribution is king and its empire keeps growing. Understanding how to make intellectual property and copyrights prosper within it is an urgency that requires cooperation, decisions and looking forward. To borrow a phrase from the new President, it requires audacity.

Saturday 4 October 2008

Nokia “Comes With Music”

Credit to Nokia for walking where others are only talking. We all know that music buying is a broken system. We’ve all heard the solutions on offer: suing the bastards in one country, threatening Internet connection cut-off in another, and claiming that advertising will pick up the slack wherever pundits draw breath. Nokia has decided to fight free with free and “give” the music away. Thursday night, after months of speculation, Comes With Music was unveiled at the glamorous Koko Club in London.

Comes With Music is a one year subscription that ties unlimited free music to a variety of Nokia phones. The flagship model is the 5800, a touch-screen model that will be endlessly compared to the iPhone. Subscribers to the service can download music to their heart’s content and at the end of the year keep it. The four majors are licensing their material as well as many of the major indies, so breadth and depth isn’t going to be an issue. But there are limits: the files are WMA not MP3 and have DRM - just as all the labels have dropped it. It will only play on the mobile phone or a PC. To burn tracks to a CD requires buying an additional license. Of course, Apple have a similar walled eco-system but also have the advantage of being a very smart niche manufacturer with one of the world’s best industrial designers and a flawless marketing philosophy. Nokia, on the other hand, is the world’s largest mobile phone manufacturer and doesn’t have either a great designer or marketing. Personally, I don’t buy from iTunes because of the limitations and I won’t be subscribing to Comes With Music for the same reason. But I support the fact that Nokia, with their massive global scale, is attempting a solution that gives the audience what they clearly want while enabling musicians to get paid.

Let’s Talk About Sex
Have you noticed how iPhone owners like to put their phone on the table? How they like to fondle it? I haven’t seen such phone-envy since the late 80s in Hong Kong, when the background sound in every location was the clunk of mobiles hitting the tabletop so everyone could marvel at the clunkee. But to me the really innovative design is at Sony-Ericsson; some of the Walkman phones are the best industrial design of the last three years. Against this, the Nokia 5800 looks ordinary. I won’t be clunking it on the table.

But as the great scientist Richard Feynman said, “What do you care what other people think?” Because after 15 minutes playing with the 5800 I was in love. Smaller than the iPhone, it was designed to be operated with one hand. Finally, the music system, from download to playing, is simple and intuitive. It can play movies. It supports both keyboard typing and handwriting. It will record video up to the limit of the memory. Like the iPhone, it’s essentially a PDA that makes phone calls – with the added advantage that you can put your four most frequent contacts into a bar on the home page, allowing instant phone calls, texting or email. It also has very good stereo speakers, which I dread having to suffer from chavs on the Underground.

Will.I.Am – Visionary

Although Nokia marketing isn’t flawless, they pulled the excellent stunt of bringing Will.I.Am on stage. Like all music stars, he started talking as though he had nothing planned, stopping in mid-sentence as though words were strangers to his mouth. But consider what he said: that the four minute song is a function of the technology it served, the vinyl disc and the CD. Since the Internet is infinite, what is an album nowadays? “Is a song four minutes any more? I don’t think so.”

He threw up his web site for the song “Yes We Can”, written earlier this year for Barack Obama specifically for the Internet. After it was released he invited the world to make and upload their own version. He clicked to the resulting page, two portraits of him and Obama, but made up of everyone’s contributions, so that as the cursor passed over each face individual contributions blew up and became the lead audio version.

So, he reasoned. If you can do that, why can’t you treat a song the same way? At a certain point, there might be a link into another piece of music, or when it’s played in a club the dancers could take a photo of themselves and upload it into the track, so their image becomes part of the song. This, he said, was what Black Eyed Peas were grappling with as they record their new album here in London – redefining the song.

In parting, he said that the Obama song was given away on the Net because not everything is about money. “You’re supposed to make change with music.” Let’s see if Comes With Music achieves that. with job description

Wednesday 1 October 2008

Saturday Night In Soweto

For the best Indian food in Jo’burg, go to Bismillah. It has bright fluorescent lighting and simple furniture because they’ve put all the finesse and passion into the food. It’s in a typical city street, across from an apartment block and amongst shops and cafes. As we’re walking back to the car [watched by “security” so it won’t be broken into or stolen] our hosts say that during apartheid this was the Indian part of the city, where they were forced to live and where whites came only to buy exotic groceries at the market. The images we used to see were of tin shack settlements in Soweto, but of course the entire city was segregated into go and no-go zones, dependent solely on your genetic heritage.

We get into a discussion about the nuances of apartheid. As Indians they were second-class citizens, whereas the blacks were the machinery for production. So they could go into certain parts of town where blacks couldn’t. They could go to the park, but not sit down on the benches or grass, or use the toilet. As I’m listening to these subtle expressions of control I think about the Nazis, who passed laws in the 1930s banning Jews from riding bicycles, from using public spaces, from owning pets. In modern South Africa our hosts have overstretched themselves to move into a desirable, wealthy suburb as a statement of freedom to both their peers and their former rulers.

Modern South Africa shows its freedom in some surprising ways. Sophiatown was an early township, until the government realised it was on profitable land and moved the entire population out to Soweto, then razed it for their own use. Now, Sophiatown is the name of a township theme restaurant, with corrugated tin roof and period photos of Miriam Makeba and Nelson Mandela during his trial. At night they burn wood in large tin-drum braziers to warm the patio. The waitresses all have t-shirts saying Shabeen Queen.

We drive into Soweto past the mansions of millionaires, then turn the corner to see the old tin shacks. Driving through this city of three million, the juxtaposition of nice houses and corrugated tin shanties is continually played out. While social equality has come quickly, economic equality is taking far longer.

Some walls have “billboards” painted on them. One brightly says:

Dreamlocks Dreadlocks
It’s what yo dreadlocks have been dreaming of

We drive over to the Hector Pieterson Museum, honouring the first child to be killed in the uprising of 1976. The government had decided that if the machinery was to work smoothly, the cogs needed to understand orders correctly, so they passed a law requiring Sowetan schools to teach Afrikaans. (Since teachers didn’t speak Afrikaans how did they expect this to happen?) It mobilised the students and in the first protest march the police opened fire, killing Henry. By the end of the uprising an estimated 600 school children had been killed and 10,000 injured. But the actions of these courageous children started the end of apartheid.

Vilakazi Street is the only street in the world to have the homes of two Nobel Prize winners: Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela. We stop at Mandela’s house but it is being renovated, hidden behind plywood panelling. So we walk down the hill to an outdoor restaurant and drink fine Namibean Windhoek beer as night falls. Our driver suggests we go somewhere else and soon we’re in a small, immaculately kept house, where his cousin is getting ready to go out and celebrate her birthday. Meanwhile we will have a party “that will make the roof fall down”. South African and American r’n’b plays as the women get ready and the men mix tumblers of whiskey with passionate political discussion. One says, “South Africa is confused. Of course we all voted for Mandela. Then, of course we all voted for Mbeki. But now we have choice.” Zuma, the heir apparent, has this day gotten off a rape charge and while the men are divided, the hostess is clear. “He raped a woman. What will he do to the country?”

Nelson Mandela's house under renovation. Note the No Guns sign on the bricks.

We get in the cars and head for a shabeen. Some of the men driving are well past any legal limit. Yesterday the newspaper published a survey: 67% said they drive while drunk, 17% never drive when drinking, and 16% don’t know. Under the full moon the golden chains of city lights glint across the hills in every direction to the horizon.

A shabeen is a club that’s inside someone’s home. We pull up to a large, modern two-story house with a generous patio enclosed by clear plastic curtains. Warmly greeted by the doorman, we step through the entrance into a sonic sea of house music pumping through the rooms, not too loud but mixed so that the bass is a pleasant physicalness against my chest. The patio is full of energetic people sitting at tables and dancing to the music. Next to the front door is a sign that says No Gun Zone. Two downstairs rooms are laid out like a restaurant and when people want to dance they just find a space next to their table. On the menu is a pudding called Soweto Uprising, which neatly describes both its history and what we’re enjoying right now.

The seamless mix of music stretches time like someone pulling chewing gum wide apart. There is a bubbling energy and everyone is dressed for Saturday night. A series of images float into focus: a lady in large glasses and a pink poor-boy cap making minute adjustments to it until the angle meets satisfaction. People dancing as naturally as they walk. Men in pastel blue, pink and green t-shirts, circling the rooms as they check out the action. A very large lady in tight yellow clothing enters the door and immediately attracts admirers, who touch her, flatter her, dance beside her. Four women drink and dance, working out moves, having a dance competition, ignoring the men who circle and cut between them.

At 3.30 we leave. The van turns a corner and in front of us several hundred young men fill the street, moving and socialising to music blasting from a car stereo. They are all under 18, too young to get into the shabeens, so they take their party to the street. Thirty-two years ago, these were the youths who decided they wouldn’t take it anymore.

Tuesday 30 September 2008

Moshito: Festival in The Desert & Comrade Fatso

Everyone wants to go to the Festival In The Desert. Mani, the festival producer, glides through our desire to get free tickets with alacrity. The people who have been (mostly journalists) make it clear that this is not a day on the grass before going home to the jacuzzi. "Two months later you’re still getting sand out of your ears," says Daniel from French radio. Somehow that makes it sound more desirable. Mani says that about 10,000 people attend, transported for two hours from the airport across the desert in 4x4s. They stay in tents and use makeshift toilets and rudimentary showers. We’re making plans, people from Berlin, London, Johannesburg, wondering if we can get the kids out of school for a week, whether we have the money. What a global village we’ve become when we can say, and mean it, "See you in Timbuctoo next January".

Mani at work.

The musical event of the week is Comrade Fatso and Chabvondoka. Fatso is a white Zimbabwean with dreadlocks to his waist. He bounds on to the stage and immediately wants to hear some noise from the crowd. He’s charismatic, energetic and has no fear. He is not fat. Chabvondoka is a trio: a drummer who plays like a percussionist, a six-string bass player that rumbles like Bootsy and builds complex rhythms that don’t do what basslines are meant to do, and a guitarist who does that Zimbabwean thing of playing guitar like he’s playing an mbira.

Fatso raps about hunger, identity, the struggle. As he warns us, even the love song sounds like a political rap. I’ve never before thought about what it’s like to be a white underground agitator in Zimbabwe and I bet you haven’t either. I’m guessing he ducks and dives on a daily basis. He has a great line in hardbitten humour: "We didn’t come here to do a gig. We came to shop for groceries. If you go to the shops tomorrow and the shelves are empty, that’s us!" He looks down at the guy videoing the performance. "I hope your good, because there’s no authorisation." He looks up at us. "In my country if you don’t have authorisation to make videos you’re taken away and beaten up." He looks down at the cameraman again with a hard look. "So. Do you have authorisation?" The band kick off the next song.

The music is stunning – loud, aggressive, fun, full of delicious beats. As the songs keep pouring off the stage it just gets better and better. At one point I’m thinking, "I’ve never heard this sound before."

On the dancefloor the cameraman starts dancing with a delicious woman with a great line in booty bouncing. Another man steps in and in West Side Story choreography fights off the cameraman, who steps away with his hands in the air in defeat. After bumping hips with the woman the victor leaves her and steps across the floor to further threaten the cameraman, who’s back is turned, hands in the air, shaking his head in meekness. But then he turns and struts across the floor, muscles in between the couple and rotates around until the three are shaking and strutting as one unit to the rumbling bass and percussion.

When Fatso announces that CDs are for sale at the door I’m straight up there. It doesn’t sound urgent the way it did on stage, but I dig it. There’s a lot of love and attention in it and it deserves your love and attention as well.

You can buy it off their Web site. You won’t be disappointed.

Friday 26 September 2008

Moshito – Faces of Africa

They’re not cynical here. It takes time to get used to it. People’s faces are open to discovery, to knowing who you are, what you have to say. The other morning three of us were talking and one of the young staff suddenly stood before us, shaking our hands just to say hello. When I wrote before that the handshake is sensuous, I meant that it’s not a crushing macho hold but a soft communication. It says: we’re together in this moment, you and I. They don’t let go immediately, as though some energy needs to flow between us as well as our words.

This is Eric, from Benin. He heads a pan-West African organisation that is promoting the area’s music as well as building basic systems in Benin, Togo and other countries so that artists can get royalties for the first time.

Anabel is one of the Moshito conference organisers. She’s from Soweto.

Definitely the hairstyle of the day.

There’s a library worth of stories in this mans face.

Gerald Seligman (American) heads Womex, the music festival organisation. Dudu Sarr (Senegalese) manages musicians and organises tours.

Hip hop star? Fashion icon?

Thursday 25 September 2008

Moshito Conference – Day 2

Today is the 31st anniversary of Steve Biko’s death at the hands of the Police, so an important day in South Africa. It’s also the day that Sout African President Mbeki has brokered a compromise in Zimbabwe between Mugabe and Tsvangerei. To celebrate, ere’s a photo of a Zimbabwean $50,000,000 note. That’s right – the inflation is so astronomical that everyone is a billionaire. The note has an expiry date on it as well! So after June 2008, this note ceased to be legal tender.

I’m at the conference to speak about new music formats and trends on the Net and mobile phones, as well as a talk on how to do promotion and marketing using these tools. It’s pretty sobering to learn that South Africa has a 9% Internet penetration and only 3% of the nation use it. We take so much for granted. So a good part of the session was spent talking about how mobile phones can be used to spread the word about your music; everyone can get a text message on their phone, so we went from exotic Net apps to very basic stuff pretty quickly! The sessions themselves were really enjoyable but it’s the whole experience that I’m treasuring.

The music juice started at lunchtime when a Zimbabwean guitarist gave an acoustic performance. Unfortunately I didn’t get his name, because he was stunning, playing really intense highlife on an acoustic guitar. It’s one thing to hear those riffs on three electric guitars; it’s jaw-dropping when one guy does it all with an acoustic.

In the evening a young Soweto group called The Soil gave an outstanding acapella performance. Together five years, they have yet to make a record. Their voices were a fabulous blend, with intricate harmonies that gave the sound real drive and rhythm. One of them told me later that they have nothing against instruments but they want to remain true to the spirit of acapella. I was standing about six feet from them during the first number. The girl was looking and sounding nervous, when they came to a change in the song. Almost involuntarily she moved back slightly, her face changed expression and she leaned into the mic, her voice suddenly intense and deeper, lost in music. The whole group lifted at the same time and it really took off. I started thinking about how I was listening to the oldest music there is, in the continent where it started. They told me their name comes from the fact that God created us from the soil and everything meaningful is made of the earth, so their name is in honour of Him.

If this photo of them singing is unseeable, blame my crappy phone camera.

In the lobby of the restaurant where they sang is this photo of Miriam Makeba, taken in 1958. The dress she’s wearing is burnt orange in colour, made from two-way stretch bathing suit fabric. Just looking at it makes me wish I was there. We’re going to try and get to the place where there’s an archive of this photography from the 50s and 60s.

Then it was across the road to Nikki’s Oasis, a longtime home of live music. I’m getting the impression that Jo’Burg doesn’t do clubs the way we do – this was more like a café with some booths and a low stage. The band onstage couldn’t have been more than 20 and launched into a great interpretation of Miles as we entered (blame the Hanepeet wine on my lack of memory). As someone remarked, this was real jazz, not that noodly stuff. The drummer was exceptional, always with his foot on the beat, even in his most Elvin Jones flurries. He was rewarded with some intense dancing by some of the audience. They also gave us all a first – towards the end of the last piece they started packing up their instruments while they were still playing!

Jazz fans at work. The man in the white shirt is dancing without spilling the cocktail in his hand.

Tuesday 23 September 2008

Moshito Music Conference – Johannesburg

Ten days ago I received a very unexpected invitation to speak at the Moshito Music Conference in Johannesburg. It took about three seconds to say yes. I’ve never been to South Africa – heck, I’ve never been to Africa – and I didn’t know what to expect, but the high points have come from very unexpected places.

Moshito is a three day conference investigating all aspects of the music business, not just in South Africa but throughout the continent. So I’m speaking to guys from Benin, Tanzania, Senegal, Nigeria and Mali as well. Two things have stuck out: the musicality of the Zulu language, which people speak in parallel with English, so that conversations drop in and out of both seemingly at random. The other is how men shake hands. It’s sensuous. It lingers. It involves a series of clasps and touches, and it’s soft. It’s a language in itself.

This morning we got to the venue about 9am, just as the doors were to open. The staff – mostly students – were singing the same kind of music before they started work. It rocked.

The Conference staff