March 31, 2023
“I guess all songs is folk songs, I never heard no horse sing ’em.” This ambiguously sourced quote has been attributed to Big Bill Broonzy and Louis Armstrong—it’s unclear who said it, if anyone ever did—but regardless of its veracity, the sentiment stands. From the race essentialist impulse of John Lomax and his recordings of Southern Black prisoners to the critiques of modern capitalism that fueled the ‘60s folk revival, folk music has always been a project of curation and construction, the idea of “folk” defined as much by what it isn’t as what it is.
So how should one curate the month’s “best” “folk” music on Bandcamp? The goal of this column is not to promote a singular, pastoralist vision; instead, this column will take both the “all music is folk music” idea and Robin D. G. Kelley’s conceptions of folk seriously, demonstrating the latter’s idea that folk is “a cutting, pasting, and incorporating of various cultural forms” (from Race Rebels: Culture, Politics, and the Black Working Class).
Every month, the Best Folk column will trace through a potpourri of tradition and its remixes: folktronica; mid-century pop songs; so-called “world” music and hybrids thereof’ and good ol’ folk songs. This is not to exoticize these sounds, but rather to complicate the notion of “folk” altogether, listening to tradition and modernity, the West and the global majority on equal terms. In the column’s debut, we have Balearic Turkish percussion and Anatolian rock; French-Ghanaian industrial chants; cyber-occult Mandarin pop; Javanese gamelan; and Irish drone-folk; among other sounds from across the world.
The Good Samaritans
No Food Without Taste If By Hunger
“The Future of Music Happened Decades Ago,” announces Analog Africa’s Bandcamp page, in a fitting demonstration of what Ross Cole dubs the “folkloric imagination,” in which the past is refashioned into “the fountainhead for an alternative future.” The future that No Food Without Taste If By Hunger by The Good Samaritans imagines is funky, the album a characteristic example of the Benin City highlife offshoot called Edo funk. “Ekhueghamunu” is a dancefloor heater, its four-on-the-floor cranked up over 140 beats per minute as its reggae-inflected bass and guitar sway to and fro, while “Gaskya-Kace” breaks up the rhythm with a kick pattern that could make its way into a two-step mix.
This record might be the farthest from what’s traditionally considered “folk” music on this list, full of industrial noise and electronic hiss, but the influence of tradition is clear on the polyphonic melodies in the album’s opening and closing tracks. Like many other artists on Nyege Nyege’s sublabel Hakuna Kulala, French-Ghanaian vocalist PÖ draws from a plethora of influences to create hybrids both danceable and heady: title track “Cociage” is a murky mashup of gabber, rap, and dark ambient, while “Wind” dispenses with dancefloor pretensions and leans all the way into her uncanny spoken word poeticism.
Gamelan Kjahi Kanjoet Mèsem of the Mangkunegaran Palace
Gamelan in the Mangkunagaran Court, Surakarta, Java, 1931-37
These pre-WWII recordings of Javanese gamelan, recently transferred to digital format from 78 RPM shellac discs, include opera from the Mangkunegaran Court in Surakarta, Central Java. Many of the tracks are recordings of langendriyan, a style of Javanese opera that tells the story of the hero-prince Damarwulan. According to an article by Kaori Okada referenced in the liner notes, this style was distinct in that all of the roles were played by women, a rare example of cross-gendered performance in Central Java.
The cyber-occult world of Henry Kawahara manifests through the voice of Shanghai-born vocalist Xiao Yun Wu on this obscure ‘90s CD reissued by EM Records. An uncanny collection of pop songs and covers, Purple Garden imagines an alternate-universe Asia that never existed, destabilizing the folkloric imagination with off-kilter melodies and synthetic atmospheres. “Green Island Serenade (oriental jazz mix)” puts a dissonant spin on a 1954 Mandopop classic made popular by Zi Wei. First becoming popular in the Philippines among overseas Chinese people, the song spread throughout Southeast Asia and eventually Taiwan in the 1960s, its crossing of borders the perfect metaphor for the imaginary “Asia” that the cover and the record as a whole evoke.
Finally: steel guitar, harmonica, and honest-to-God songwriting—we’re listening to American songster Dom Flemons. This column would be remiss to ignore his latest record Traveling Wildfire on Smithsonian Folkways, consisting of original compositions informed by Flemons’s encyclopedic knowledge of the lesser-known histories of American roots music. His 2018 record Black Cowboys presented some of those histories, but on this record, he crafts what he describes in the liner notes as “an audio impressionistic painting that is based on my personal epiphanies, spiritual evolution, and real-life experiences during ”the overlapping precarities of the COVID-19 pandemic and the George Floyd uprisings. The record opens with three songs that use that perennial marker of country music—a wailing steel guitar—to tell stories of Black love, while “Big Money Blues,” “Old Desert Road,” and “Rabbit Foot Rag” trace their sounds to blues sounds from the Mississippi Delta to the Piedmont. The title track sees Flemons channel Leonard Cohen in a cinematic ditty composed in the throes of Hurricane Ida. The record touches upon a range of American sounds, and he plays no fewer than 15 instruments that trace the contours of 100 years of American folk song.
Named for a ballad popularized by John Reilly—which is also the band’s namesake—False Lankum is the Irish group’s third record with Rough Trade. False Lankum is the darkest record on this list, their rendition of “Go Dig My Grave” opening with Radie Peat’s unaccompanied croon before lumbering into Godspeed You! Black Emperor-esque drone punctuated by thundering percussion. “Clear Away in the Morning” is lighter fare, while “Master Crowley’s” deceives by beginning with a more traditional rendition of the Irish reel that descends into darkness. “Netta Perseus” and “The Turn” are original compositions by Lankum’s Daragh Lynch, and like their version of “Master Crowley’s,” both songs rupture halfway through, introducing emotional twists that accompany experiments in texture and tone; it’s these contrasts which Lankum deftly navigates on False Lankum.
EVERYBODY DIFFERENT SCENT
EVERYBODY DIFFERENT SCENT is the latest collection of lo-fi folk from Seoul-based Jina Kim, aka Jina0King. She sings the album’s title in the title track in unison with a descending guitar line to open the record, before embarking on an improvisatory fingerstyle journey. But while she’s an expert at crafting atmosphere from her guitar alone, “I Dreamt So Bad” demonstrates the raw emotions that she can express through her voice, repeatedly singing “아주 나쁜 꿈을 꿨다” (“I had a very bad dream”) with a breath that aches.
Islandman feat Okay Temiz and Muhlis Berberoğlu
A “picture from different places in Turkey,” according to Islandman’s Tolga Böyük, this sprawling one-take recording with storied percussionist Okay Temiz and virtuosic saz player Muhlis Berberoğlu blends Balearic beat with Turkish folk melodies. With six improvisational tracks that clock in at over an hour total, it’s a record to get lost in, each track’s title evoking a different aspect of the Turkish landscape: “YAYLA YOLLARI,” for instance, roughly translates to “Highland Roads,” while “PAPATYALAR” refers to the daisies that usher in the Anatolian spring.
It’s a fitting coincidence that these two records—a re-released classic of ‘70s Anatolian rock and a landmark of its contemporary revival—both dropped this month. In 1975, Baris Manço, a pioneer of the genre, used the miniKORG 700S and Solina String synthesizer on his futuristic album 2023. The album, reissued digitally in March, almost predicts the sound of Anatolian rock revivalists Altın Gün, who have specifically cited this album as an influence and take cues from Manço in their latest record Aşk. And as Turkey reels from an earthquake that has taken nearly 50,000 lives, Altın Gün is using their music as a spiritual and material salve, pledging all YouTube streaming revenue from “Güzelliğin On Para Etmez” to the international Red Cross to support their relief efforts.
What has changed in the past half-century? Musically, the cutting-edge sound of Anatolian rock has become the subject of preservation. In some ways, the forward-looking 2023 sounds just as futuristic as, if not more than, the revivalist Aşk: Manço’s “Baykoca Destanı” is a space opera drenched in Moog soundscapes, stretching almost 13 minutes long; in comparison, “Güzelliğin On Para Etmez” feels like a radio edit. At other times, Altın Gün puts a funkier spin on the classics: “Çıt Çıt Çedene” is a cover of a Manço song (not on 2023), alternating between tight bass grooves and transcendent synths. These two albums, juxtaposed against each other, encapsulate the questions this column aims to probe in its selections: What happens when tradition and technology collide, and what does it mean for that collision to become tradition in its own right?