Central to the interest of hip-hop is the fact that it exists as a simulacrum, a simulation of music - in the traditional sense as a performed art - while insisting that it must be seen to be musical on its own terms. There is something quintessentially bold about this, necessarily attractive, where the artist is saying that yes, this is music stolen and re-imagined with the artful cunning of a thief, but it speaks to/of me.
With this, though there are potential dangers. At risk of being too solipsistic, too self-referential, lacking the dynamic that comes from live performance, the music can rapidly become formulaic, cold, lacking the essential feeling that comes from the alchemy of musicians together in a room (expressing something of their selves, coming together, challenging each other); or it can become repetitive, in that the music is confined by the limits of the producer’s imagination. Or possibly even worse, hip-hop music - and instrumentals, in particular - can transform into ‘easy listening/elevator music’ that fulfills the lowered demands of listeners who seek diversion (and to be entertained) above all else.
Paris-based producer Onra has found a solution for all of this, via his Chinoiseries series (the first album in the series was released in 2007 ; the second in 2011 and the third, final record in the series last month in March).
In the interview featured below, Onra refers to the way Gil Scott-Heron replied that his music was Blues when asked to put it in a category, because no matter what it sounded like, this tradition provided the foundations for his work and sensibility. Onra says its the same for him with hip-hop, not only because this is what he grew up listening to, but also because of the way he makes his music (old-school: digging in the crates, finding the samples, inputting it into the MPC …)
More than this, though, Onra's music enacts respect to the origins via the way he engages with the source material: he doesn’t speak or read Mandarin, can recognise record companies – maybe – but has no idea about the broader cultural context, what it means/how it could be interpreted, so when choosing the musical elements, all he goes on is the sound. This is what gives his music its heart.
Nowhere here is there that awkward sense of an outsider transplanting one musical tradition into a dramatically different context (take the recent fashion to take ‘African rhythms’ and layer them over a mainstream pop-song, or use them to offer up the foundations, no African people present, aside from a few photogenic dancers in the video maybe). Onra’s music holds its own universe inside it that feels personal. This stems from the fact that he doesn't relate to the music, or sounds, in an intellectual sense: he doesn’t understand it, he doesn’t know it, he responds to it: this work is driven by instinct.
Chinoiseries has a double meaning in French; first referring to a ‘decorative style in Western art, furniture, architecture (that became popular) in the 18th century and (was) characterised by the use of Chinese motifs and techniques. See, for example, this painting by François Boucher, ‘The Chinese Garden’ from 1742
But it also has another meaning (admittedly one that I have never heard living here in Paris) that has a pejorative element and refers to ‘complications’ – as in a chinoiserie could refer to red-tape (I found this a bit-off definition online for the word, which must be a mis-translation from the French: ‘I hope that this Chinese incident will not put you in an awkward position with your superiors, dear François').
This idea of complications, of irregularity was seen to be part of the original aesthetic of the Chinoiserie in the past, especially in garden design (and spurned for this reason by some as ‘…a retreat from reason and taste and a descent into a morally ambiguous world based on hedonism, sensation and values perceived to be feminine,' according to one critic mentioned in Wik.)
There are so many phenomenal tracks on Chinoiseries, part 3 (‘Zoodiac’ with its intense noisy, paranoiac vibe that retains an almost punk feel - it reminded me of the kind of sampling/cut-up aesthetic of bands like Crass and groups of their ilk - ditto for ‘Voices in my head’; or the mood-driven work, such as ‘Hold my hand’ or ‘A distant dream’ – the disco-embellishment of the slowed-down exposed beat that goes nowhere, fading in and out, on ‘Pearl Song’).
Again echoing its old-school roots, Chinoiseries, part 3 is a record that demands to be listened to as a coherent piece of work, as the impact of the tracks is not individual but cumulative; it's really special.
Bio: Onra (Arnaud Bernard) was born in 1981 in Germany to French parents, although his father has Vietnamese ancestry moved to France at the age of three and shortly after, lived between France and Côte d’Ivoire, where his mother was based for over twenty years. He discovered a passion for music at the age of ten and started making music at the age of nineteen.