A few years ago, West Oakland native Joel Fuller began to notice something strange in the music he was listening to. An avid fan of the local electronic scene, he began to detect elements of cultural tones turning up in the grooves that were playing in dance clubs around the Bay Area. “More and more I was hearing things like classic Indian sitar or West African drums mixed with these electronically made sounds,” he says. Then one night at a Spearhead show in Santa Cruz, Fuller noticed the DJ in between acts was spinning traditional Pakistani qawwali music, and a light went on — “I thought ‘Whoa, it’s not just my imagination, this stuff’s breaking into the mainstream.’ “
Shortly thereafter, Fuller quit his job as a computer animator and bought a digital video camera. Inspired by the 1998 documentary Modulations, which focused on the genesis of electronic music culture, Fuller and cowriter Matthew Buckner began brainstorming ideas for what would become the documentary DeviantRhythms.
“Modulations was great,” says Fuller, “but it was mostly based around the premise that these hip, underground subcultures are exciting enough simply because they’re new.” Modulations fell short, says Fuller, because it didn’t prompt the audience to think about the implications of the changes it was championing or offer much in the way of evidence for how it affected the social fabric. “We wanted our film to run much deeper than the simple-minded question, ‘Is electronic culture making traditional culture extinct?’ “
Two years later, Fuller has produced DeviantRhythms, a heady but compelling work that sweeps through the Bay Area’s electronic and cultural music scenes to a soundtrack of global-tinged rhythms. For the film, Fuller interviewed a wide range of Bay Area music figures, including African drumming and dance master C.K. Ladzekpo, ethnomusicologist and Latin percussionist John Santos, Om label head Chris Smith and Bob Duskis of Six Degrees Records, drum ‘n’ bass DJs like Sifu, as well as DJ Sep who runs the weekly dub and roots club Dubmission at the Elbo Room in SF. The film’s subjects offer their take on the doc’s central theme: What happens when traditional music meets the technology-driven world of samplers, turntables, and drum machines? But rather than allow the film to devolve into a bitch session about “loss of tradition” or the “burden of past generations,” Fuller sought to create a dialogue between the electronic musicians and the traditionalists. He was surprised by the high degree of respect that both sides had for one another, despite approaching their art from very different directions. “All the subjects recognized this phenomenon as being about innovation and tradition — or, as I call it, the mixing, matching, and clashing of music in the copy and paste era,” he says.
To the electronic camp, Fuller posed the question of cultural sampling: “Is it okay that a musician takes a sample from an ethnomusicologist’s recording — like a female circumcision ritual — and uses it, unaware of the baggage that the sound might carry with it?”
Not surprisingly, Balanceman, who plays in the electronic and acoustic hybrid band Cat Five, acknowledges the need for cultural sensitivity, but argues in the film that the ultimate goal is creative expression. “I respect different cultures, but in the end, if it’s a neat sample, I’ll just grab it,” he says.
DeviantRhythms may include tons of insight from its subjects, but Fuller admits that he still had his own preconceptions of those in the traditionalist camp — preconceptions based on cultural myths and stereotypes. “There are a lot of people who think of cultural music as some sort of museum piece, encased in glass and staying the same forever, to be played the same way it was a thousand years ago,” he says. “I expected to hear a lot about ‘tradition’ from someone like C.K. Ladzekpo, who does feel strongly about preserving tradition, but who also had a very open attitude about technology and was well aware of the need to be progressive.”
DeviantRhythms is earnest and thoughtful filmmaking, though technically limited by Fuller’s inexperience behind the camera. Without a repertoire of shots to work with, he relies on swoopy cameras and heavily filtered effects for the film’s action sequences. Still, Fuller demonstrates an eye for interesting characters, and his affection for his subjects comes through in the interviews and fixed shots. He shows that he can achieve that intangible connection that a good documentarian must make with his subjects.
Due in large part to his provocative and thoughtful questioning, Fuller seems to elicit a large number of insightful comments. The narrative is open-ended and somewhat choppy, but Fuller keeps things on track. There are several brilliant moments, like one with Bay Area Center for the Performing Arts director Jordan Simmons, whose comments about the harvesting of the arts for their “cultural capital” cuts straight to the heart of what Fuller is trying to say.
As he readies his film for its debut in San Francisco next week, Fuller is still working furiously on the extensive DeviantRhythms Web site (www.plebeian.org) which will feature additional footage, a mixing station where visitors can play DJ with the music they hear in the film, and other information to enhance the overall experience. For Fuller’s part, he just wants to bring attention to this process. “By the time you’re aware of it, it’s probably already evolved into something else,” says Fuller. “Music is really just a metaphor for how I look at life.”