Saturday, April 11, 2009

a new toy

The Casio VL1 (or VL-Tone) was one of those truly bizarre products in musical history.

Thanks to ebay I have a new toy - half calculator, half 'synthesiser'... One of the four Kashio brothers who founded the company was a would-be musician as well as an electronics engineer and he had designed a simple and inexpensive LSI (Large Scale Integration) chip that could be used for musical purposes, but executives at the company weren't confident that it had enough features to sell in its own right so some bright spark at Casio had the idea to add a calculator! Obvious really! What else would you add to a small, portable musical instrument?!?? I guess that as one of the world's leaders in calculator manufacture, they had the technology for free.

As well as being a calculator, it can also be powered up in a mode that offers a handful of monophonic sounds played from the two-octave 'keyboard' (an inappropriate term for the row of unplayable and unreliable switches you can see above). Flute, Piano, Guitar and Violin. To describe these sounds as 'realistic' would be highly misleading.

It was something of a novelty gadget and sounds pretty poor through its own small speaker but played through the line output, it can sound fairly reasonable, so much so that it was used by the Human League, Devo, The Cars and others - even Stevie Wonder is alleged to have used one!

However, it was the German band 'Trio' who gave the VL-Tone its finest moment of fame in their record "DaDaDa" which was a huge huge hit (especially in Europe) and which used one of the VL-Tone's preset rhythms as its foundation. The VL-Tone was used in later years by Moby and Goldie and others. And despite its obvious limitations, the VL-Tone sold 1,000,000 units in its five year lifetime (1979-1984).


I’m now officially addicted to this album. Its on at the gym, it makes me laugh out loud on the TTC, I’m listening to it right now on the ipod dock.

Strut Records has put out a 2nd set of Nigerian high life and Afro-Funk and it is amazing. Quirky, beautiful, complicated, so, so rootsy. I remember when highlife first hit the scene and I spent months dancing round the house to ‘Sweet Mother’ by the amazing Prince Nico Mbarga - I’d never heard the jangly high guitar sounds of this afro pop sound before and they just pulled my heart out. But eventually it seemed like that sound was everywhere and I moved on and I felt like I’d been there and done it. But this fab collection breaks the stereotypes about the sound and shows the immense range of sounds and styles that these amazing musicians were exploring. A wonderful mix of acoustic and electric instrumentations and quirky expressive vocals. Even the names of the songs and the bands are thrilling: "Everybody Likes Something Good" by Ify Jerry Krusade, "Yabis" by Sir Shina Peters & His International Stars, "Onyame" by Ashanti Afrika Jah, "Ezuku Buzo" by Bola Johnson & His Eazy Life Top Beats, "African Dialects" by Peter King, "You Are My Heart" by Rex Williams, "Hot Tears" by The Immortals, "Dododo (Ekassa No 1)" by Sir Victor Uwaifo & His Melody Maestros, "Happy Survival" by Ifeanyi Eddie Okwedy & His Maymores Dance Band, "Tug Of War" by The Faces, "Ire Africa" by Chief Checker, and "Eddie Quansa" by Peacocks Guitar Band. Check them out here and I think that Soundscapes on College St has the CDs.

and man, I love their outfits. I think we should all dress like that in Toronto - it would so cheer up the winter.

Saturday, April 04, 2009

My Current Favouritist Album

Eccentric Soul - the Trager and Note Labels.

Imagine a time when everyone was trying to copy the great songs of Motown and the Soul explosion. When every recording studio across America was filled with wannabe groups and singers and arrangers and producers trying to find the next big thing. Well, some of them made it and some of them 'almost' made it, and sometimes they almost made it in really interesting ways. This series of recordings has been dredging through little known archives and labels to find unknown gems - and I love this particular collection. They all sound so, so, so close to the greatest soul record you ever heard, but then a sound comes slightly out of left field and you think 'what the hell was that'... a riff that would be better in a classical quintet, or a voice that stepped right out of the church pews, or a shout out that sounds like it should be in a modern pop record. Sometimes there is a note out of place, or the singer dips below the pitch, but it doesn't seem to matter at all - the songs are constantly surprising and filled with passion and conviction and they are somehow (in spite of the fact that they are desperately trying to copy the greatest hits of the time) totally original. You can hear them on