In praise of: Chinoiseries, Pt 3, Onra (All City Records, 2017)

I was juggling doing shows and seeking something that could inspire me … I finally found it by returning to my fundamentals: rap and R&B. I listen to so much music that it’s sometimes hard to find those feelings you had when you were a teenager, when you could listen to one track and be stuck on it for what seemed like forever. I just started listening to things I listened to when I was younger and it gave me the idea to write an album coloured by these feelings. I was looking for an aesthetic.

It was more about colour. I wanted to reproduce a sort of colour, a sentiment that I had when I was a teenager listening to this music.
— Onra speaking to FACT magazine about his 2015 record 'Fundamentals'

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 that awkward sense of an outsider transplanting one musical tradition into a fundamentally 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.

I don’t speak Chinese, or read it, so I’ve got no idea what I’m buying. I spent hours to find the samples for Chinoiseries no 1 with a taxi driver; it’s thanks to him that I could find the vinyl records for my first album. For the second I went everywhere in Asia, to China, Vietnam, Thailand where I found a lot more. For the second, it was even better, I went to Singapore, Hong Kong, China, Thailand, The Philippines. I even found some records in France, in a ‘brocante’ (trash & treasure) in Paris.
— Original interview with French magazine, La Vague Parallèle, trans by the author

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.)

LVP: Speaking about imperfections, the crackling, dusty sound on the vinyl, was that added or is it authentic?

Onra: That’s real. The vinyl records were dirty and I left them like that, it didn’t bother me and I don’t hear it anymore, but I never amplified it. There’s nothing fake (fake, in the original English in the interview) here. The records are from 1960-1970, after 1990 there were no more vinyl records in China; so it’s Soul, Rhumba, Cha-cha-cha, things that were influenced by traditional Chinese music, or music from Latin America, or covers of European songs, say pop music, that were well-known. There are no modern effects.
— Original interview with French magazine, La Vague Parallèle, trans by the author

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.

***

What is your most prized or favourite Jay Dee record that you were able to collect over the years?

For a long time, it was Jay-Dee remixes EP, that came out in ’96 on House Shoes’ label. That one was very important for me because he send it to me personally. It was his last copy on his own label. So, he sent it to me in exchange of another batch, which was a very rare Jay-Dee beat tape from ’98. I think he may had put it out himself, as a second bootleg of one of his most famous beat tapes from ’98: Vol. 2 Vintage Jay-Dee Instrumentals. I had 3 copies of it, now I have 4 of them. So, I sent him one of my own and he sent me back the House Shoes EP. It’s a green vinyl, a super special one which was very cool. But this year I was lucky to find a Slum Village Fantastic Volume 1 on cassette, that’s the original format it was released on! They made 500 copies and were released in Detroit only. I found that shit on E-bay, I don’t know how many times I searched for it, maybe a hundred times. There has never been a copy around, and on this one day I found one, it was $ 250, -! But I just needed it and clicked on the ‘buy it now’ button immediately. It’s the ultimate shit, like nothing can beat that!
— Interview with LosBangeles

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.