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frequencies

by josh kun

Songs for Basquiat

OTTO, A Brazilian musician who sings, programs beats, and plays the triangle, ends his new album, Condom Black (Trama), with a song for Jean-Michel Basquiat. I've imagined what Basquiat's paintings sound like before – a Charlie Parker sax riff run into an overdose oblivion, a Max Roach drum solo that takes New York back to Africa with a stopover in Haiti, El Gran Combo in a paint descarga, Grandmaster Flash scratching over John Cage – but never anything like this.

Otto's "Basquiat," which he lists as a "bonus track" on an album partly dedicated to practitioners of the Afro-Brazilian Candomblé religion, is a crooked and hesitant electro bossa nova shaped by stumbling beats. "From morning to afternoon to night," he cryptically sings, "my coconut can't stop rolling." Basquiat is mentioned only once in the song, in the final line, as the one "who knows."

That Otto, a '90s Brazilian, should reach for Basquiat, an '80s Puerto Rican-Haitian New Yorker, makes sense. Since his death in 1988, Basquiat has become an Afro-Atlantic icon of cultural creativity and exchange synonymous with the search for new ways – alternate ways – of making black art in the Americas. He is especially attractive to Otto because of the tradition Otto's music carries on: the 1967-68 Brazilian musical movement begun by Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil known as tropicalia. As Christopher Dunn explains in his excellent new book, Brutality Garden (UNC Press), about the movement that looked to both Andy Warhol and Brazilian concrete poets, tropicalia advocated cannibalism as a third-world musical practice, wherein Brazilian samba would eat up the Beatles and Candomblé would devour Hendrix – the African and the Indian chomping on first-world delights to make a local identity out of international parts.

Basquiat also made chomping, cannibalistic art that turned concrete poetry into scribbled pomo verse (Gil's "dried meat in the window" fragment prophesying Basquiat's "quality meats for the public") and rewired Warhol for black history. Where tropicalia turned the Campbell's soup can into Carmen Miranda, Basquiat – in his "Arm and Hammer II" collaboration with Warhol – took Warhol's Arm and Hammer logo reproduction and morphed it into a jazz record. Plus, Basquiat was hip-hop's first gallery star, and hip-hop has tropicalia's reliance on technological hijacking and cross-cultural recycling running through its veins. In Basquiat's paintings, as in hip-hop, blackness eats everything up, but it sometimes gets eaten, too, leaving skeletons and skulls as traces that wear Kangols, speak bebop, and spray graffiti tags as copyright notices.

Veloso's tropicalista motto, "I refuse to folklorize my underdevelopment," resonates with Basquiat, who played with art-world expectations of black identity by balancing his hip-hop ties with the downtown avant-garde of the no-wave scene. The only professional recording Basquiat ever made with his Mudd Club noise band, Gray, "Drum Mode," appears on the new Anti-NY (Gomma) compilation in two versions: the listless 1984 original that sounds like the inside of a hollow steel pipe and its 2001 remix by Paul Mogg, which puts Basquiat into the same global breakbeat loop that Otto feeds off of.

In his poem about the band, "Gray," African American writer Kevin Young describes Gray's music as "radio – ham – ambulance-music" that melded DJ scratches into guitar strings plucked with metal files. Young doesn't actually think of "Gray" as a poem but, like Otto, as a song for Basquiat. The book in which it appears, To Repel Ghosts (Zoland Books), is made up of 117 such songs (Young lists them as tracks on record labels), alternate takes on familiar Basquiat themes and verse remixes of individual Basquiat paintings that cross-fade Young's words with sampled Basquiat text. The book is "an extended riff," Young says, with Basquiat's life and work as "a bass line, a rhythm section, a melody from which the poems improvise." It even opens with a warning to page-turning audiophiles: "distortions clicks and pops from analog equipment are part of the fabric and only contribute to the garment's uniqueness and sound quality."

Young's Basquiat is analog; Otto's Basquiat is digital, with distortions, clicks, and pops worked into the sequenced mix. They are both, to borrow one of Young's titles, "urgent telegrams to Basquiat." Young wants Basquiat back, and Otto wants him just how he is, as an influential ghost haunting black Atlantic undergrounds. In both cases, it's Basquiat's paintings themselves that are left as the most urgent telegrams, oil-and-color missives sent out to anyone ready to receive them.

E-mail Josh Kun at jksfbg@aol.com.