Fifth World Music: An interview with Babau
BABAU is a duo composed of Luigi Monteanni and Matteo Pennesi, both also founders of Artetetra records, a tape label concerned with the latest developments in the concepts of digital folklore and transglobal exoticism during late globalisation. BABAU is best defined as a pastiche combining a fascination with World Music 2.0, Fourth World galore and Mondo Voyeurism with the latest abstractions in computer music’s compositional techniques, which they call ‘Quinto Mondo’ music. Through the years, they have played in festivals such as Club To Club, Fusion, Saturnalia, Outernational Days, Mondo Muzak and Camp Cosmic and have collaborated with Kiosk radio, NTS, The Wire, Sun Araw, Simon Reynolds, Senyawa and many others.
Babau play at the upcoming UH Fest in Budapest.
Can you talk about this idea of digital folklore and “transglobal exoticism”, a fascination with “World Music 2.0”?
To start right away with the nerdy stuff, digital folklore is an Internet vernacular and a folk art created by users for users and expressed through repertoires of jokes and other genres of digital content. Beyond this technical definition, we are interested in particular in musical interpretations of (sub)cultures and folklore through digital means – imageries which often superimpose fantastic and mythical registers or historical symbology onto the secularity and popular appeal of technological devices, memes and video games. The results of these practices, in music, often emerge as naïve, ambiguous and light-hearted pastiches of mismatched audio-video influences, guided both by escapism and curiosity – personal sonic worlds built out of freeware, smartphones and laptop software as well as brazen sampling and extreme audio-manipulation.
When it comes to world music 2.0, DJ/rupture defines it as the music of “whoever now has access to inexpensive computers, cheap or cracked versions of software, and YouTube, on the one hand, and what their parents listened to or what is common to where they live on the other. When they’re making it in response to all of those situations, integrating the Internet’s incredible sprawl, that’s World Music 2.0”. Does it sound familiar already? Of course, digital folklore and world music 2.0 differ in that Jayce Clayton refers to something especially done by people outside the Western world but without the strong influence of the world music scene and with no pretensions to a return to roots and authenticity. Extreme metal, electronic music, rap, music from weddings and cab drivers’ radios have, at the same time, strong global canons as well as deeply localised regional codes. What’s more, this scene, in turn, influences Western musicians exploring the global East, giving rise to new complex transnational relationships and new, multi-layered hybridities.
In this sense, we like the idea of a “transglobal exoticism”, which if you think about it is a contradiction in terms, since exoticism has mainly been a peculiar type of Western gaze. Our goal is quite the opposite; we like to try to de-exoticise the exotic and vice-versa. We also like to call this Fifth World Music: if Fourth World was for Jon Hassell the sonic place where “a unified primitive/futuristic sound combining features of world ethnic styles with advanced electronic techniques” and where multiple cultures could meet musically in a “spiritual” place, Fifth World attempts to create a space where both global and regional audio (sub)cultures can meet thanks to secular (physical or metaphorical) places and social practices.
This idiosyncratic, exotic sound has a long and interesting history. From psychedelic and ambient releases of the past, to more current stuff by the likes of Not Not Fun and beyond. Where does the genealogy of your sound lie?
BABAU is almost ten years old, so there is a lot to unpack. We started with a strong attraction for post-war exotica in the fashion of Richard Hayman, Les Baxter and Eden Ahbez and archival collections such as the ones built in time by Ocora, Albatross and Sublime Frequencies, of course, accompanied by Jon Hassel’s work.
At that time in Italy, we were also feeling the strong influence of our local underground scene, then defined as Italian Occult Psychedelia (La Piramide di Sangue, Heroin in Tahiti etc.). Those kinds of influences were all transposed and interpreted by us in our first EP: Papalagi. Of course, as you also mention, at that time we were also starting to be more and more drawn to American and sun-bleached, lo-fi psychedelic stuff: things like Sun Araw, Not Not Fun, Moon Glyph, Spencer Clark.
After the release of Papalagi, we suddenly came into contact with the digital and post-freak scene of Northern Europe. Labels and projects such as Das Andere Selbst and Jealousy Party, and Jan Anderzen with Tomutonttu and Kemialliset Ystävät did really show us new ways to explore and interpret jazz, folk, noise and psych, ways to implement new sampling and manipulation techniques.
Lately, we have really been influenced by a lot of early computer music artists such as Dave Vorhaus, Carl Stone, David Behrman alongside musical humorists like Mauricio Kagel.
How important are digital technologies, and the many VST’s, plugins, and effects to your work?
We love to experiment with as many things as possible, mainly using our sets of instruments and tons of different VSTs and Plugins for sound manipulation (most of them are freeware); a process that we execute on Ableton live. When it comes to our set, we actually like to try to obtain a collision between physical instruments and digital technologies. On the one hand, we use a number of wind instruments that are passed through effect chains alongside dynamic samplers playing soundbites we find online or recordings of single-instrument improvisations. On the other hand, for almost five years the granular synthesis app Borderlands has been shaping the way our tracks and jams sound, giving them an ulterior degree of liquidity and unpredictability, making our sound rather abstract at times. In addition, we do love Animoog, which is still one of the most astounding synths around.
In our opinion, it is particularly fun to explore computer music, physical modelling, synthesis and the like through unexpected types of controllers and software (be they a guitar or a touchpad). What we really like is to employ the corporeal side of improvisation to generate and deliver digital sounds and vice-versa. Digital technologies really help us explore unusual configurations for rather straightforward processes. The goal is often to make everything sound slightly off.
Besides the music project, you also run Artetetra Records, an imprint that is like a temple of this transglobal exoticism (for instance, one notable release is called Exotic Ésotérique). What is the dramaturgy of the label?
For us, Atretetra is simply: everything that we do when we are not recording or playing around. It was born as a way to compensate for our physical separation and understand better the background movements and mechanism of an underground scene. Artetetra meant principally releasing music in tape format, but through the year, has also functioned as a way to promote a series of concerts and simply interact with our scene.
More generally, we like to see Artetetra as a contemporary and non-explicative wunderkammer. If wunderkammers originally were – among other things – trying to impose order on strange objects and artefacts, we try to host music that communicates this quirkiness without trying to explain anything; it’s a technicolour mess where each release underlines the richness and uniqueness of these approaches. That said, we love immersive imageries, personal languages but also inner contradictions. We like to think that listening to our releases is like peering into a collection of very ambiguous and aleatory scenarios through music. Lately, we’ve started to organise a monthly event called Future Pidgin in Milan. The focus is simply to gather the artists we like and share music with our community.
Do you somehow feel that the likes of World Music 2.0, Fourth World, etc are criticisms of the increasing interest in non-European music, historically often sampled and used in a questionable way?
When it comes to World Music 2.0, it certainly is, although it would not be the same for Fourth World music, which faced a lot of healthy and obvious criticism through the years. In general, we do feel that exoticism is a feeling and not a thing. Exoticism – although it often does – does not equate with orientalism. What’s more, to think about exoticism as a landscape decorated with scattered palm trees and lush beaches is simply wrong. We follow Victor Segalen and try to focus on what we term radical exoticism, a fascination for anything that sounds alien, new or other. In late globalisation, the exotic is both everywhere and nowhere to be found, making it enjoyable to utilise it as the backdrop for one’s auditory imagination.
It is interesting that you mention sampling, which of course can be a highly problematic practice, delving directly into issues of appropriation of various kinds. Practice has to be oriented and conscious in order to avoid disrespectful behaviours altogether. At the same time, we feel that new iterations of these concepts related to world music/world beat/ethnic music underline that there is still something to be said about the way regional traditions and customs enmesh with the world as a whole, how sounds travel following the flows and routes of, yes, commerce, imperialism and war, but also of interest and experimentation with newfound sounds.
Is there a sound that surprised you the most?
It might sound cliché, but we do love animal sounds, especially birds, and their “involuntary sound design”. It is simply impressive to witness the richness and complexity of their calls. Another astounding sound is the one recorded by Ludwig Berger of an Inumaki tree (Podocarpus macrophyllus) bending due to a strong wind in the forest on Esuzaki Island, Japan and captured with a simple contact microphone.
What are you currently working on?
We are currently working on a residency project at Casa degli Artisti in Milan, where for the restitution we’ll likely record a new album and arrange the building’s stunning music room as a temporary venue for a number of kindred projects.
Secondly, we have now kickstarted a new live act with performer and musician Francesca Heart – also based in Milan – titled “The best of instrumental stand-up comedy”, where we try to answer performatively the question: how would an audio-joke, a sonic punchline sound?
Third, last July we participated in the Nextones residency curated by SHAPE and Threes productions in Valdossola, Italy, alongside ecological fashion creative Flora Rabitti – aka Atelier Florania – and musician Alberto Ricca – aka Bienoise. The residency was related to a tongue-in-cheek music tutorial that we titled looongplay. We’re now working to release an output to document and make concrete the hours we spent jamming.
All in all, since our 2021 Kiosk radio residency and our 2020 audio works for C0C and MKG Hamburg, we have approximately 20 hours of unreleased studio material that we are looking forward to working on and releasing in some form.
We’re pretty hypertrophic, which sometimes can be inconvenient, but we also have to face that this happens because for us the process is often more fun than its output. We really think that there is nothing more important than just playing, just letting music do its thing.
Interview by Lucia Udvardyova