If it has been said once, it has probably been said a thousand times Ė music is a universal language. That is the fueling idea Cyrus Moussavi has behind his documentary series project Raw Music International. But to call this a simple music documentary is almost an injustice, as his motives and findings through just the pilot of this project, which Moussavi is hoping to turn into a full-fledged television show, show more than just information behind music of people around the world. Raw Music International is about the life of music and the people making it, as seen and heard through the documentation and recording of his crew's time spent in Kenya for the pilot. From a guy that grew up in the midst of bands like Modern Life is War and Former Thieves in the Cedar Falls underground scene, Moussavi has brought his love for music and his interest in how it works in cultures outside of his own to life with this project. Getting together early last week for a phone conversation, I spoke with him about what makes him and this project tick, as well as his current and future aspirations for the show.
In a Ďscratching the surfaceí mentality, what is Raw Music International and how does it fit into to the idea of a musical community as it pertains to the people viewing the episodes?
Raw Music International is a television show about underground music scenes around the world. Each episode, we travel to a different country, learn about the music and through the music, tell about the people who make it who might otherwise be foreign to understand. In reality, in every country you go to, every different place you go to, there are several musical communities. Thatís kind of the goal of this show, to show all these subtle differences in a place that might only look like one thing. You think of Africa, you think of one thing. But if you can learn about six different music communities in Africa and different kinds of people that are involved in these musical communities and how those communities worth, you get a little bit more of an in-depth feel of a place that is otherwise too big and weird to understand. Music is something we can all understand. Genre, instruments and fans are all things we can understand. When you apply it places that are a little bit different, maybe we can understand them better too.
Before we delve a little bit more into what youíre doing with Raw Music International, tell me a little bit about your background with music and how you reflect upon the musical community you grew up around.
I grew up in Iowa, in Cedar Falls, and like a lot of other places Ė there wasnít a lot to do. We had a pretty sweet music scene though, and there was this place called the FSU Garage, that became the FUK Garage, and we had all kinds of amazing bands going through. Modern Life is War is from around there. And thatís where I first learned about a musical community. People who I didnít really know, who would take care of me, led me to comfort, gave me a CD and taught me about music. Iíve learned that you can learn a lot about a place through music. Thatís where I grew up though, and with the traveling I did with my family, I saw music played a different role in society than it did in Iowa at the FUK house. I just learned how music can play a different role in your life. [As far as documenting it,] Iíve never done a documentary before, never really used a camera before, but I thought the only way to get this across is visual, thatís why I did it on video.
How would you say your perception of music has changed as youíve gotten older?
One easy thing Iíve noticed, is Iíve become much more conscious of genre. I barely consider genre anymore when I am deciding whether or not I like it, Iím just more interested in how it sounds, how they are playing it and where it comes from. I think Iíve just become more open to different genres of music. At first, you look at this set of music you listen to, and then you start to travel around. You start meeting different types of people, listening to different types of music. Itís pretty exciting.
What led you to what youíre doing with Raw Music International?
I was working for a NPO in Kenya. I went to a club one night and I saw reggae music in action. I saw how this music sounds and looks when a bunch of people are feeling it and moving to it and dancing. I was going to school in New York City at the time, and I realized this shit is way cooler than any club Iíve seen in New York. It was as close to an authentic musical experience I had seen since Iíd left the FSU house. So that first experience in Kenya made me think about how I could do this, how I could do it in different places and how each episode can tell you a different thing about music in general but also about that place where people make it.
You did the pilot episode in Kenya, what were your initial intentions going into this being your pilot and how did you go about documenting what you wanted people to see about this community?
First off, we wanted to show that it can be done, that people will allow you to do this stuff. They are interested in people from the outside coming in to hear and record their music. We also wanted to show the big idea of this, this DIY thing, like the same way some underground level touring band does it. Weíre going to go through the grind with people who are doing the music. My goal is to just go with it, to see these people and how theyíre living. Not let my own background or the things Iím used to come in the way. As far as what we filmed and what we did, we tried to make sure we got a wide scope. We talked to a lot of different people about what was going on. We filmed three generations of music, ancient music to reggae and hip-hop. We tried to view as many people as possible, but then of course itís hard to narrow it down to who you focus on. But, we tried to get the people who were doing the most creative, interesting things. People who are really charismatic with their music.
You touched a little bit on the DIY mindset. I know there is a different culture over there, but the idea of doing things yourself is probably much more prominent than the bands here that are sleeping on floors or whatever. How does that DIY mindset translate into how people are creating music in Kenya?
Well, in Kenya, DIY is everything. From the way you build your instruments... you know the traditional instruments are still around. Guitar Center? Theyíre making their instruments. The rappers, theyíve basically heard other rap songs and decided that they love this music and then they set out on their own to re-create that. Which to me, is fascinating. Music is whatever tools you can get your hands on, which is usually not very good stuff. Stolen copies of Fruity Loops, whatever. In Kenya and a lot of the world, people are making music because they love it, not because of fame or whatever glory will come out of it. From the most ancient traditional musician to the newer, young rapper. You canít do it thinking about money. And [in Kenya], there isnít some idea of becoming a rock star. So you are going against a social trend by doing this type of stuff and doing music in a place where your opportunities are so limited anyway. If youíre talking about punk, about DIY and love of music, doing it in a place where you have almost zero chance of succeeding to me is the ultimate in that mindset. That is why I admired the people that we saw.
Some people, when they first hear about this project, might feel like there is no connection between whatís going on in Kenya and whatís going on in their local scene, whether it is for me in Detroit or someone in New York City or elsewhere. How does that musical community translate to people that maybe see something completely different?
Iím not sure if it translates directly. Like you said, every place has their own scene. LA, Detroit, Nairobi. I think that in general, the instances are the same. The reason people are making this music is in a lot of ways expressing yourself if you have something to say. The normal channels of communication are blocked to you, so you say ĎFuck it, Iím gonna make some jams,í and this is what is happening. I donít know if the way the communities interact, the people in the communities have any sort of similarities, but the reason people make the music is usually pretty similar. The way that they make it, like a lot of people are just scraping by, making as much as you can and doing what you can. Here, weíve got all these websites, blogs, in Kenya people roll around and burn CDs and try to get buses to play them because a lot of people ride around in buses and if a lot of people know your song you can get pretty popular. The idea of the grind, doing something that nobody else really does, that most people think is ridiculous and dumb Ė that definitely translates.
In the blog that you do for Raw Music, youíve shown a lot of things are politically or socially relevant to the people that you focus on. Would you say that that is the primary focus of the music that is going on in Kenya and if it isnít, what are some of the other things you feel people are trying to do with music there?
I think politics, social commentary is a major part of Kenyan music. It has been since as long as it has been recorded. Only recently has Kenya had an open governmental system and the only way people could express political and social commentary was through veiled messages through music, starting with the British colonialists. It certainly isnít just now that people were dissing the government. But it is definitely a great way to understand a place when you go beyond the specifics. The political grievances people have are similar throughout much of the modern world. Other things, people are trying to make money from this music. Modern rap is a lot about making money, going to parties, meeting ladies. Thereís a popular genre called kapooka, itís like the one drop reggae beat. Those songs are a lot about going to the bank, making money and having a good time, buying cars and whatever. And these underground rappers say that, and you think like, ĎWhat are you talking about? You donít have a car. You donít go to the club.í (laughs) Youíre not 50 Cent, you live in Kenya. So itís the same authenticity of realness and being fake, they exist in Kenyan music. I do think itís an outlet though for people who donít really get a chance to speak about what they think politically. Itís like a political history lesson, not only to translate those lyrics into English, but to translate them from whatever code theyíre speaking that you can get the whole background of this country through.
I think too that to every person that thinks every song should have a message, there are still songs or artists who want to say ĎThese are things I am trying to realize or strive for in lifeí and just trying to convey that to people.
Absolutely, it isnít all boasting. Like, these are my goals in life, this is what I want.
Youíve spoken a little bit on your blog about ideas for future episodes including the state of punk music in Indonesia, which I think a lot of people find interesting. Touching a little bit on that, what are your thoughts on how traditional culture and music exist with each other in the world and how that relationship has come along?
Itís really interesting to watch all of these differences in these countries Ė punk in Indonesia, rap in Kenya Ė but at the same time itís kind of disconcerting to that come in the place of ancient traditions and have been replaced by Western forms of music. Music that has grown from the U.S. or Europe is taking the place of this stuff. But thatís the question of the show. What are the young people doing now? Whatís the music they are listening to, how are they taking in what they had before? Are they changing it or forgetting it totally? Iím not a particular activist when it comes to that, but I do think it is important to, if that is happening and is a particular aspect of the show, preserve ancient music that might be fading away. I donít know where itís going, it does seem like a lot of ancient music due to aesthetics and technology [is going away]. Like, Olima, this old guy who plays this eight-string guitar. When I first when to Kenya, he was holding court at this drinking club, and he was the musician. The second time we went, the Kenyan government had done this rural electrification program which had bought tons of benefits by bringing power lines to rural parts of the country. People could have lights, not use a generator all the time. But at the same time, the club that this guy had played his instrument at was suddenly playing Boyz II Men jams (laughs). Like, how does this 80-year-old guy compete with Boyz II Men? So thatís the major question of the show. Itís both sad and fascinating how it is changing. Iím really interested in the all-consuming power of Western pop-culture and why it seems to devour everything it comes across. But the answer is that it lies in a lot more than music. Kenya is just the beginning of a lot of interesting thoughts.
If you were to do some episodes within the confines of the United States based on specific communities, what are some of the immediate ones you would want to document in some way?
Of course all the punk and hardcore scenes that weíve got going on in the United States. Those are things that are happening in peopleís backyards that some of us donít know about. I find the music being made in the immigrant communities in the United States to be very interesting. One that weíre trying to make is cleaning ladies in Los Angeles, which is about these Guatemalan communities that clean houses during the day and then at night they have these door-front churches and have religious revivals with music in the background. Itís incredible and so passionate. Itíd be a different view of Los Angeles, the city of dreams and stars from the perspective of the people who make sure it stays tidy. But of course, I want to get the punk scene I grew up in on tape without getting them in trouble. I donít wanna get anyoneís garage shut down! It would be kind of tricky.
Getting back to the show, what holds in the future as far as making more episodes and getting it out to people on a mass scale?
Itís right now up in the air. Weíre in New York right now meeting with people who are working with us on the show. Iím really trying to get it on the air. Iím really interested in the internet broadcasting side, just because you can show it to so many more people than if you had cable TV. So if anyone has any ideas to how we could get this to a lot of people without having to go through major corporate channels, let me know. Iím totally open to it, using the power of this internet we have to combat some of these more confining organizations that control it.
How has the reception of the pilot gone as far as trying to get people interested in it?
Itís been really positive so far. It goes back to this idea that the major television networks seem afraid of this international stuff. I mean the international stuff does work, just look at Anthony Bourdain. But with music, just look at the things people are listening to and are interested in, the underground and [music] on the internet today will show you even weirder things that sound more off the beaten path than ever. I think people are interested in it, and people who have a lot of resources might be a little bit more hesitant to invest in it, but thereís definitely a place for it. Itís given me a lot of hope. We put our mixtape up for download and it got like 12,000 downloads in a month, which is sweet for random African music. There are outlets for it though, we just have to find the right place.
Regardless of what people know about music or what their tastes are, what are you hoping people are going to get out of what youíre doing with Raw Music International?
I hope that you hear this stuff and see these people playing this music, and people that you would otherwise pity at best or ignore at worst become something more than random, poor, hungry people. They become artists. I hope to bring the human part of places that we normally ignore to life because everyone can get a good song. Everyone can understand that. Even if the song is mediocre at best, you can kind of get what theyíre trying to do. It can hopefully bring places that are otherwise devastatingly foreign to life through this medium that we all understand. And provide an alternative for all this shit we hear on the radio. I mean címon, America canít be making the best music in the world. Thereís be gotta more. There are several billion people on this planet, the 300 million people in this country canít possibly hold the crown. Somebody else to compete. Provide an alternative to Justin Bieber (laughs).