Who owns indigenous music? Psychedelic duo Heavy Color collaborate across cultures to make ‘world music’ less parasitic

Witching Hour 2020

Oct. 30 and 31 —

Musical duo Heavy Color, presenting for the 2020 Witching Hour festival. — courtesy of Witching Hour

Heavy Color, a beat-driven psychedelic music duo founded by Ben Cohen and Sam Woldenberg, makes “world music” by way of Toledo, Ohio. These composer-producers are very careful to distance themselves from that problematic term — world music often treats music made by people outside of a European or American context as exotic culture ripe for plundering.

There’s a long history of Western musicians mining ethnographic recordings and sampling them within popular music, the first prominent example being the self-titled 1992 multi-platinum album by Deep Forest. This French duo sourced material from field recordings of music from the Democratic Republic of the Congo and elsewhere, but all of the profits flowed to the white European musicians and their corporate record label, a classic example of cultural appropriation.

“If you look at the way creative rights of traditional music have been assigned,” Cohen said via email, “the ownership of music deemed indigenous defaults to the person it was recorded by, in effect treating entire cultures’ music in the same way we treated the exploration and eventual occupation of this continent.”

Cohen has always been inspired by sample-based music, and Heavy Color started out as an outlet to release futurist instrumental hip hop and electronic music. He met his longtime musical partner Woldenberg during first period on their first day of high school in Toledo, and these two white kids clicked immediately.

“We used to skip study hall to talk about our future band,” he said. “We have been collaborating in different bands ever since—going on 20 years of making weird music together.”

They’ve both lived in different places throughout the country since graduating, from Hawaii to New York City, but for them there is something special about the Midwest. Living in Toledo gives them the time and space to manifest their creative projects, Cohen observed, and the city’s cultural institutions are accessible to the local creative community in ways that would be more challenging in major metropolitan areas.

“The music and cultural scenes that we identify with are uniquely tied to the Great Lakes,” he said. “There is a holistic intersection of environmental activism, social justice and organic community relationships at the foundation for many of the circles we run in.”

A record collector for years, Cohen’s sonic explorations have helped him connect the dots between a wide range of music. Heavy Color’s first album, 2014’s Arise Ye Spiritual Machine, drew on the hip-hop tradition of sampling music from various archival sources, though they had the benefit of starting from a more historically informed and socially conscious understanding of social power dynamics than, say, Deep Forest.

“Still, I wouldn’t say that we totally did avoid those pitfalls,” Cohen noted. “I think that being conscious of appropriation requires a lifetime commitment to learning and updating your understanding.”

With this in mind, they recorded their 2018 album River Passage in a deeply collaborative fashion with musicians from Eastern Congo. They were approached by Seth Bernard, founder of Earthwork Music and artistic director for the Musical Ambassadorship program at On the Ground, a Michigan nonprofit that seeks to create sustainable relationships in farming communities around the world.

Heavy Color worked with poet and educator Akili Jackson as they spent time in various villages along Lake Kivu and in Bukavu, listening and sharing with local musicians at Ndaro Culture arts center, who participated in making River Passage. At the same time, Cohen and Woldenberg helped these musicians record their own music in an attempt to balance the labor politics of this cultural exchange.


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“I think the trip was incredibly sobering,” Cohen said. “Eastern Congo is a heavy place that is recovering from a century of violence and trauma that stems directly from the colonization and occupation from European and Western powers.”

One pivotal event occurred during a welcoming party in the first village they visited. Locals sang songs that were meant to thank them for coming, and afterwards the community members gathered in a church on a hill. As Cohen stood outside listening to the compelling rhythms, his first thought was to record the amazing music he was hearing. When he asked permission to go inside, he was told more or less: No, this place is not for you. It’s for the community.

“That moment was an important lesson in consent, and it framed how we approached the making of the album,” Cohen said. “We tried to rely heavily on the music that we made in collaboration with Thomas [Lusango] at Ndaro, via email and hard-drive exchanges over the course of two years and after multiple translations. We only used samples of music from villages that had been made either in collaboration, or for us as welcoming music at our arrival to different communities.”

Proceeds from the album’s profits are shared to support Ndaro Culture and the various villages Heavy Color visited via On the Ground Global, an NGO that has ongoing relationships with these communities via sustainable coffee. While working on River Passage, Heavy Color developed material that would become Soft Light, an upcoming album they hope to release roughly by the first snowfall of 2020. (They also composed the music for Invisible Hand, a recent documentary produced by actor and environmentalist Mark Ruffalo.)

“It was a creative time for us,” Woldenberg said. “… Soft Light was a bit of a step away from Arise Ye Spiritual Machine because we were essentially creating our own samples with live instruments. There’s more drum sets, and some songs feature our vocals, which is unique to Soft Light.”

“After everything we have learned in trying to make River Passage as equitable and collaborative as possible,” Cohen said, “I don’t know that I would feel comfortable making Arise Ye Spiritual Machine in the same way now as we did then. I think that record really inspired us to seek a more direct and active way of interacting with music from different cultures that felt reciprocal and living, rather than archival or curatorial.”

Kembrew McLeod is still reveling in his dance-off victory against University of Iowa President Bruce Harreld, who chose to quit his job rather than face Roboprofessor’s mad skills. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 287.

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