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Escape Velocity

Fourth World Pop: Rainbow Arabia Interviewed
Robert Barry , November 10th, 2009 06:24

This ain't no disco, says Robert Barry, after talking to RA's Danny Preston. This is fourth world pop with a name that's in total harmony with the beautiful music it's attached to

In sharp contrast to the desert of ideas awaiting us on an album marked 'Oasis' and the rather workaday pop of The Saturdays, or the cognitive dissonance wrought by Razorlight (neither sharp nor enlightening) and Nirvana (anything but peaceful), Rainbow Arabia have chosen a name that suits quite perfectly the sound of their records. Inspired by the purchase of a Casio keyboard that played microtonal scales and Arabic beats, and infused with a lysergic technicolour that's perfectly Californian, the sound and its given name strike us as almost too perfect a partnership for a group otherwise so fired by the fury of conflict.

It's been suggested, notably by Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek, that — where the key political development of the 19th century was the politicisation of the industrial working class, and that of the 20th century was the politicisation of the formerly colonised nations — the pre-eminent political event of the 21st century will be the politicisation of the slums. For the first time in history, the vast majority of the human population live in cities — and the vast majority of urban dwellers live in semi-official shanty towns on the edge of these cities. An early sign of the awesome political potential of the slum-dwellers came in 2002, when over a million of Venzuela's poorest citizens came down from the Caracas barrios to protest outside the presidential palace against the attempted coup d'etat which had sought to depose President Hugo Chavez.

Perhaps there is a productive allegory to be found in music. The most important music of the 19th century was the popular songs and industrial broadsides of the working class and, of course, Wagner (it's well known, after all, that Wagner engaged in worker's revolution in Germany and was a close friend of the anarchist Mikhail Bakunin). The most important music of the 20th century was evidently post-colonial in a certain sense: the century was marked by a series of encounters between the musics of the coloniser and the colonised, heard in jazz, rock 'n' roll, ska, reggae, Afrobeat, hip hop, bhangra, almost all of which have been associated with various forms of civil rights and anti-colonial struggles at one time or another.

We've already seen the first seeds of the music of the 21st century. The increasing presence of Brazilian funk carioca and Angolan Kuduro in UK record stores has spread the sense of a kind of pan-ghetto global bass explosion. Rhythms and sounds are like viruses, and it wasn't long before more suburban groups became infected by the music of the favelas and the barrios: Diplo, MIA, Bonde do Role, Buraka Som Sistema, and now California's Rainbow Arabia. But do not mistake Danny and Tiffany Preston's bewitching combination of microtonal keyboards and third world rhythms for some nouveau riche slumface posturing. Inspired by the Sublime Frequencies records released by the Sun City Girls' Alan Bishop, Rainbow Arabia's music is closer to the fourth world idea expounded by Brian Eno on such albums as Possible Musics (with Jon Hassell) and perhaps especially his collaboration with David Byrne, My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. Rainbow Arabia make fourth world dance music, fourth world pop: disarmingly strange yet alarmingly enticing.

How did you meet and what led you to start making music together?

Danny Preston: Well, we [Danny and Tiffany Preston] met around nine years ago and were married five years ago. We were both in different bands before we started playing music together. Playing music together really wasn’t even a thought to us until about two years ago. When we decided to part our ways from our current bands we thought to experiment in recording some songs together, dabbling a little into bossa nova, pop, goth and middle eastern music. It wasn’t until I ordered my Casio AT-1 (eastern version with microtonal scales and Arabic beats), that the concept of Rainbow Arabia came together.

How quickly did your diverse range of influences converge into the sound of Rainbow Arabia? How has your sound changed and developed?

DP: At first, we were super into the Omar Souleyman record put out by Sublime Frequencies. All the Sublime Frequencies comps were huge influences for us. But it was Omar’s record that led to the creation of Omar K and Let Them Dance. Our sound is definitely changing and probably always will. The beats are getting fatter and the sounds are a little crisper. We are putting more work into the arrangements. For our full length, we are shooting for somewhere in between 'The Basta' and 'Kabukimono' but this time more African and Reggae mixed in with some Goth and industrial.

Can you tell me a little about your backgrounds? Have you always lived in LA? What were you doing before Rainbow Arabia?

DP: I, Danny, lived between LA and OC my entire life. My mom lived in Huntington Beach and my dad in LA. I was always going back and forth. Tiffany grew up in San Jose and has been living in LA for about 15 years. Before Rainbow Arabia we were both in different bands. I played keyboards in the bands Wiskey Biscuit and Future Pigeon, WB being a Americana, rock, country thing, FP being a dub disco, reggae outfit. Genres much unlike that of Rainbow Arabia. Tiffany played guitar in a couple bands called Pink Grenade and Licorice Piglet. They were like an angular, math rock like sound.

What music do you remember listening to growing up? And what is your earliest memory of a sound?

DP: I was really into the new wave, post-punk thing. Bands like Joy Division, New Order, OMD and Depeche Mode. I was more into synth music than the heavy guitar thing when I was young. Tiffany was really into Metallica and speed metal. Now the earliest memory of a song or sound. This was funny, after already knowing my memory, I asked Tiffany what her’s was. And it was the same exact memory, listening to Wings’ 'Silly Love Songs' in my mom’s car. I guess it is because we are only days apart in age and would most likely be only listening to music in our mom’s car and that was a huge hit in 1976.

Your music seems to be influenced by sounds form lots of different countries, have you travelled a lot or is it more a case of these sounds travelling to you, as it were?

DP: There are so many countries that we would love to travel to, but haven’t. I would say a lot of music came from all the Sublime Frequencies compilations. There were brilliant selections of tracks from places like, Cambodia, Sumatra, Thailand, India, Iraq, Syria, North Africa, South America.

Would you consider what you do to be 'world music' ? What are the continuities and discontinuities between what you are doing and older — say, from the 70s and 80s — notions of 'world music'?

DP: It is hard not to call it world music because there really isn’t a genre for it yet. World music is such a vague term. It groups together hundreds of types of music into one category. Even saying African music is vague. But there is no other term to use that people can relate to. I came across a name, from Japan I think, called Ethnotronic. I think is self explainatory. Our sound has that 80’s feel to it but not quite as stereotypical as it was then. We have been exposed to more obscure music from different regions than what was available back then. Also, we have so many other types of influences that is fuses together into something entirely new but old at the same time.

Are you familiar with Mike Davis's thesis on the "planet of slums"? How would you relate the explosion in urban slum populations with the growth and increasing international popularity of musics like kudoru and funk carioca?

DP: Those are an international version of rap and hip hop music. It started in the poorer urban areas and spoke of what was happening on the streets. Now with the internet and closer global communication we hearing the sounds of what's happening in their streets much quicker than we could a decade or two ago. I think there a lot more of this music to come.

Which artists do you consider to be your contemporaries? Are there other bands in LA (or elsewhere) that you would cite as your friends and with whom you might be grouped as a sort of scene?

DP: Yes... we definitely have our scene here in LA. Many amazing bands, many of whom are on Manimal Vinyl. The Manimal festival, which is coming up next weekend, is a perfect example of what’s happening in our scene. Hecuba, Fool’s Gold, We are the world, Warpaint, Polyamorous affair, Devendra Banhart, Voices Voices, Alexandra Hope, Weave, Pizza!, Edward Sharpe, and many more.

Do you think that Los Angeles residents, being both close to the Mexican border and by the sea, might have a privileged relationship with music from other nations?

DP: Maybe some salsa or Ranchero music you may hear on radios on the street. But I don’t think we get any more than any other places. LA is still caught in whatever is mainstream and is pretty much the only thing exposed to people.

Is your music influenced by any art forms other than music?

DP: The artist who did the artwork for Kabukimono and other images for T-shirts and stuff, influences us in a way. His name is Hideyuki Katsumata. It seems we influence and inspire each other. He finished the art for Kabukimono before we finished the album. The art inspired us to write the title track 'Kabukimono'. His art looks like how our music sounds.

Do you worry about being accused of appropriating music from the "third world"? Is there an ethics or a politics to your approach to music?

DP: No, we don’t feel we are appropriating music and we are not worried to be accused of it. If people feel like it is offensive or exploiting, then that’s their take on it. We are just putting together sounds that inspire us to make our own unique sound. We are not going to compromise our sound just because somebody thinks it’s offensive. Our intent is just to make fun and interesting music that everyone can relate to and maybe even get exposed to some new culture.

How do you go about developing new tracks? Do they tend to start off as composed songs or improvised jams?

DP: Our songwriting methods change project to project. The Basta was all pretty much jams we came up with and then arranging parts within it. That EP was more just a captured sound and energy than individual songs. In 'Kabukimono', we put a little more into the songwriting. They were still written while playing it live. For our new album in the works, we have been putting beats and basslines together first and then writing lyrics and adding instrumentation afterwards. We will see how it goes and will keep exploring new methods.

What can we expect from you in the future?

DP: First, is a full length album which we are planning for a Spring release. I’m starting to do remixes as well. I have one for Pictureplane that should be done next week. Also, we are in the works for a music video for 'I Know I See I Love I Go'. There a some other exciting things coming up as well but I don’t want to get your hopes up till we confirm them.