Like a lot of people, I gave in and purchased Taylor Swift’s new album, 1989. (I say “gave in” because I had been resisting doing so, on the principle that I was ticked off that the album was not on Spotify. Maybe this isn’t quite fair of me, but it’s how I consume new music these days: check the album out on Spotify, purchase if it’s something I’m into. I don’t by less music than before; I just have a better sense of what I’m going to want to listen to repeatedly before I pay for it. Anyhow, I lasted about a week before deciding that I wanted to hear Swift’s new album in its entirety, so obviously my principles aren’t all that strong.)
Anyhow, there are some great songs on the album (along with a few that seem not quite so inspired). There are some striking moments that caught my ear—for example, the synthesized horns on “Shake It Off” struck me as a playful parody of the brutal rhythms of Kanye West’s “Blood on the Leaves.” The similarity in range, timbre, and rhythm of these parts struck me not only for their resemblance, but also because they came up in the contexts of two artists who seemed to consciously reject many of the clichés and common sounds of their respective genres in their most recent albums.
But the song that most grabbed my attention was “Clean,” the final one on the record. I heard the song before reading the credits in the liner notes, and sure enough, I correctly recognized the background vocals as Imogen Heap. That alone is no small feat; Heap’s voice and singing style are so unique and characteristic, that I was already impressed that they had found a way to have her effectively sing back-up to Swift. But on reading the liner notes, I noticed also that Heap had contributed other musical elements in addition to vocals: several acoustic instruments (vibraphone, drums, mbira, percussion); programming and keyboards; and co-production (along with Swift). The result is a track that has all the spareness and textural complexity of Heap’s best work on her own albums. It’s truly lovely.
The presence of the mbira on the track was curious, though. Mbira is a musical instrument commonly found in Shona culture in central and southern Africa. It’s a wooden instrument with a number of metal keys, and it’s bright, resonant sound is immediately recognizable to anyone who has heard it before. (The title of this post is a nod to Paul Berliner’s landmark book on the instrument and its place in Shona culture.) It’s also an instrument that has had a life in the sonic texture of what’s been called “global pop”—those heterogeneous and hybrid popular music styles from around the world that are sold to Western audiences as “authentic” and “indigenous,” even when they are presented in a distinctly modified form.
Yet here, in “Clean,” I sense no attempt or desire by Heap and Swift to create an “African” soundscape. The mbira’s presence in the track is obvious, but to my ear, it’s not presented in the kinds of rhythmic and textural settings that have come to signify “Africanness” over decades of capitalist exploitation of African musical styles. (Paul Simon’s Graceland is the archetype of this.) Rather, Heap has integrated the mbira very neatly into the technological texture of “Clean,” a striking, beautiful timbre, but one that doesn’t mark itself as “other” or exotic. I find it to be a wonderfully honest use of the mbira—not attempting to appropriate its musical context, but rather, employing it for what it is: a beautiful instrument with musical possibilities that need not be limited to a narrow Western construction of what “African” music should sound like.by