Something Old, Something New
American composer Henry Cowell traveled to a variety of countries in the 1950s on behalf of the State Department, building bridges between cultures considered “valuable” to the influence of American soft power. One anecdote regarding these travels finds Cowell in Iran, lionizing Persian traditional music and, eventually, composing a few pieces (including the stunning “Homage to Iran”) in response to all he discovered. His Iranian handlers, musical academics and statesmen alike, were particularly impressed with his compositions because they went beyond recycling existing melodies and songs and spoke to what was unique about their musical traditions while incorporating very modern compositional techniques specific to his own.
The San Francisco–based electronic dance music (EDM) ensemble Beats Antique has been delivering a similarly hybridized style of music for the masses since 2007. The group is a three-member collective made up of principal melodist David Satori; a percussionist, Tommy Cappel; and dancer Zoe Jakes. The band was originally formed back in 2007 as a vehicle for Jakes, who is well known for her hybridization of a panoply of dance traditions including jazz, ballet, and belly dancing, among many others.
The band’s latest release, Shadowbox (Antique, 2016), is rich with non-Western melodies, instrumentation, and musical collaborations that burnish its reputation as a unique voice in the often hivelike EDM scene. The opening track, “Three Sisters,” features early Russian music conservationist Tatyana Kalmykova singing and playing gudok (a three-stringed violin) over Cappel’s imposing drums. The band quickly shifts gears for the second track, “Killer Bee,” juxtaposing the reggae-inflected rapping and singing of guest contributor Lafa Taylor over a raspy baritone sax riff, adorned with elements of klezmer. Another highlight includes “Vesper Star,” a drowsy duet between Satori on violin (one of his principal instruments) with sarod player Alam Khan. Cappel’s percussion once again shines as he evokes the tabla that might normally accompany in the Indian classical tradition without abandoning the core values of his own electronic dance tradition.
As jarring as the layering of style and tradition can be within any given track, Beats Antique’s real genius is in the limitations that it places on the compositions. Harmonic complexity is sacrificed for richness of melody and purity of groove. Though some songs feature words, they contribute to the auditory experience without dominating the song’s meaning.
Moreover, the songs on any given Beats Antique record, including Shadowbox, only exist in their full form as experienced during live performance accompanied by Jakes’s dance. This leaves those intrigued by the band’s unique musical approach and impeccable performances (something not typically associated with EDM) with the most important layer of meaning yet to explore as the record concludes. Considered in its totality, Shadowbox is, as the band’s name suggests, a highly improbable but successful marriage of the most contemporary musical technology and compositional approaches with the primacy of some of the world’s oldest musical traditions delivered with authenticity. Its composers are worthy inheritors of Cowell’s mantle as world-music explorers of integrity and innovators in their own right.