Brainstorm at Washington High School
  • Madeline Blount
  • Brainstorm at Washington High School

Last night for THE WORKS, Global and Mobile Pop filled the stage at Washington High School with screens in triplicate and African-sourced sounds.

Curated by musician Chris Kirkley, aka Sahel Sounds, the night featured performances by local experimental-pop trio Brainstorm, Somali pre-civil war legends Iftin Band, and sound and video artist Jason Urick, who took the stage for the night to publicly surf the web on topics related to the performance (streaming videos from YouTube or Vimeo, scrolling slowly down Wikipedia tabs, and exploring the digital footprint of what was being presented on stage).

The visuals on the three screens consisted of, from stage left to right, Urick's aforementioned Internet, prerecorded video mash-ups (also by Urick) and Skype sessions with African musicians, and live tweets corresponding to #globalmobilepop on the final, right screen.

The experience was at once meditative, chaotic, informative, fun— designed almost perfectly to overload a person's senses, encouraging info consumption to a point just beyond the comfortable.

But before all the visuals and performers included in Global and Mobile Pop came together, the project started with cellphones. Or at least that's the easiest place to begin telling the back story: Curator Kirkley traveling through Mali, trading music via SIM card along the way, realizing how mobile technology promotes the cultural osmosis of the region.

After his experiences trading from and listening to music through Malian mobile devices, Kirkley compiled a sort of greatest hits from his newly-amassed collection, titled Music from Saharan Cellphones. Upon hearing the resulting record, Brainstorm fell in love with a song from the collection, “Tahoultine” by Tuareg's Mdou Moctar.

Brainstorm singer and guitarist Patrick Phillips says it was the song's striking AutoTuned vocals that caught the band's ear, and, soon after, they decided to learn it as a cover. Their version ended up making it to Kirkley's Music for Saharan Cellphones, consisting of covers from the original collection.

When the opportunity to put together a performance for TBA came about, the pieces quickly fell into place— Brainstorm's enthusiasm for the music landed them a spot, while Urick was brought on due to the inclusion of African imagery in his video work, and Iftin Band, a natural fit, only after Kirkley discovered them while surfing YouTube.

The night started with a performance from Brainstorm. Fortressed in live tweets, endless internet, and dreamy video washes of African performance and dance (looped and overlaid), the band played a few Mdou Moctar covers and African-inspired originals (that inspiration was actualized in time signatures non-traditional to American pop music, as well as melodic structures commonly associated with instruments like the mbira).

Shortly after, prerecorded videos of Mdou Moctar were screened— one of a Skype performance prepared specifically for Global and Mobile Pop (he was going to play over Skype live, but his local internet cafe in Tuareg didn't have open hours at the scheduled performance time).

Lastly, Iftin Band— a Somali keys and hand drums duo who've lived in Portland since 1993— played a set which brought to mind Fela Kuti, programmed MIDI beats, and a stripped-down style indicative of resourcefulness and personal meaning rather than a maximized aesthetic vision.

All things considered, Global and Mobile Pop was the most accessible of the TBA:12 programming I've seen so far. That said, the consumptive overload of the tripled visuals could have been more finely tuned. Specifically, I could've done without the dedicated screen for live tweets— which, while functioning like program notes (thanks to some good info posted in real time by the host account, @globalmobilepop), also invited a good handful of irrelevant contributions, awakening many a TBAer's troll impulse. Additionally, while perhaps gimmicky, I found Urick's web-surfing contribution to be meditative and intriguing— though, in concert with the other screens, I was unsure as to how the various elements and moments of sensory overload were intended to relate to Kirkley's Music from Saharan Cellphones (or larger themes about technology). Is it that through the over-consumption of our own digital culture we lose touch with otherness? Or that we're getting closer to connecting with an otherness via online communication technologies? Or that technology cultivates otherness as much as it does American culture?

Conceptual confusion aside, Global and Mobile Pop was a good time— which is really what THE WORKS is all about— and I'll be adding Mdou Moctar into my rotation. That's probably more than I can say for the takeaway from most art experiences.