Petra Glynt - Sour Paradise

Petra Glynt is tired of you calling her music “tribal”: “It means nothing”

The talented Toronto artist speaks out against the oversimplified, racially-loaded descriptor.

- Apr 3, 2014

Tonight, Petra Glynt performs at the Art Gallery of Ontario’s multi-disciplinary First Thursdays art party. It’s a good fit for the Toronto musician/artist (real name: Alexandra Mackenzie), as a great number of other local, forward thinking musicians have taken that stage recently, like Egyptrixx, Tasha the Amazon, and Doomsquad. Ideally, it’ll draw an open-minded crowd who can grasp the complexity of her music.

Not that it’s obscure. Since the release of her debut EP, Of This Land, last year, Mackenzie has garnered a great deal of attention for her psychedelic, beat-driven music, and rightfully so: both Mackenzie’s music and her approach to making it defy categorization, confronting listeners with the issue of what to call it. It’s primarily electronic, but "folk" wouldn't be too huge a stretch.

It bursts with raw punk energy, but it also trips and loops. It covers so much ground that it should escape generalizations, but there’s one that’s crept into nearly every review she’s received, and it’s a term Mackenzie says she’s been hoping to address for some time: “tribal.”

Petra Glynt- Sour Paradise

When I ask her how she feels about it, she holds nothing back: “It's a blanket term that dismisses the existence of real, distinct societies, presently and historically.” Used without a qualifier, “tribal” connotes primitivism by relying on assumptions about what it means to be of a tribe in the first place. It obscures difference by offering no significant linkage to any specific style, influence, time or place. “It’s a huge generalization,” she says. “What ethnic group are you referring to?”

“It’s a huge generalization,” Mackenzie says. “What ethnic group are you referring to?”

Music journalists routinely use the word to describe drum styles rooted in African traditions as much as they use it to describe the very different styles belonging to North American aboriginal groups. It is largely an outmoded term, leftover from the colonial era, with most North American aboriginal groups now rightly identifying as “nations.”

In music writing it’s most often used as shorthand with an unexplained reference, and, sadly, is often based on stereotypes of a simplistic, traditional, timeless culture. It’s inexorably tied to racist notions of aboriginal music, often acting as a placeholder for “simple,” “repetitive” or “of a particular style I’m uncertain of.” Those inform how the word is used and subsequently the impression that word gives to whatever it’s meant to signify.

Mackenzie questions the reliance on the term when it’s so clearly flawed. “When used to describe my music, it means nothing,” she says.

Petra Glynt performs at No Line 9: No Tar Sands Pipelines rally

It’s no wonder she's bothered by the use of racist language in the description of her music — it contradicts the aim of her project. In both her music and her visual art, Mackenzie has long been critical of issues that further victimize the First Nations peoples of Canada, and has been a strong supporter of the Idle No More movement, as well as protesting the Line 9 pipeline.  “My work is the place where I can use a careful, conscious voice,” she explains. “I feel the incredible urgency that is in some issues, like the Tar Sands, and feel the need to do something about them within a framework that I feel confident working in.”

Though she’s actively critical of her work being described with such a loaded term, Mackenzie sees the problem as something that’s much larger than a few journalists not doing their homework. Generalizations carry assumptions with them, and in this case she astutely traces those assumptions back to the racist mindset from which they came.

“I am very grateful for the kind, encouraging responses from reviewers and this is not personal for me… [I see that the problem is] cultural… It underlines some of the lingering problems that have needed addressing since the genocide of the First Nations and as a society that still conforms to the laws and language of European, white Imperialists. You must understand why this gets my back up.”

Further, the word also implies that Mackenzie, as a white woman, is appropriating sounds that are not her own — but because “tribal” points to no specific style or influence, that implication has no substance. Yet as baseless as it may be, it calls into question her legitimacy and draws focus away from her politics. By speaking about her music in such grand, oversimplifying ways, writers are painting a very different picture of Alexandra Mackenzie than her music. The language of oppression not only actively undermines her politics, it situates her songs in a vacuum of influence, obscuring its differences and history.

Instead of jumping so quickly to label her music as some sort of exotic Other, Mackenzie prefers to identify primarily in musical terms: as a percussionist. “I love drums and will always play them. They provoke a deep sense of meaning and connection to the natural word that I feel is becoming more and more a distant feeling in my personal and everyday life.”

And as a percussionist, her music sits comfortably within minimalist traditions. Her use of loops and her embellishment of drones solidify those sonic ties, and encourage comparisons to musicians like the Velvet Underground's Moe Tucker, whose drumming is also famously (and aggravatingly) described as “tribal,” simply because she decided to flip her bass drum on its side. Similarly, Mackenzie has been busy tearing her drum kit apart since she moved to Toronto in 2005.

As with her other past and present projects, Romo Roto and Pachamama, Petra Glynt finds Mackenzie deconstructing her drum set-up in continuously creative ways. During her recent Wavelength anniversary performance she made use of a single floor tom and a sampler. She told me earlier that those two formed the basis for the material that would end up on the Of This Land EP: “All the tracks that I wrote in the beginning were composed using drum samples that I recorded with my mic onto my sampler, and depending on the rhythm, I accompanied the music with live drumming.”

Petra Glynt offers Mackenzie the ability to create something completely on her own, and without having to reference her previous streak in punk bands (she’s previously drummed for bands like Dentata and Machetes). But while composition might be new for her as a solo musician, the music on Of This Land bubbles over with an energy and colour that suggests otherwise. The percussion is loud and sounds overblown, but never oppressive.

It’s about time we put as much thought into the music we’re trying to represent as the musicians do making it.

She attributes this sound to the limits of her recording capabilities, but it’s the awareness of those limits that makes each song sound like it’s trying to break free. The beat-heavy backdrop sets the stage for Mackenzie’s strong, unique vocals, which are at once divine and commanding. Mackenzie has taken classical vocal training, but her impassioned delivery sounds more like it was honed on the front lines, Mackenzie acting as the People’s Mic. To reduce her drumming style to “tribal” is to gloss over this disparate but complimentary range of styles deployed throughout her music.

As writers, how we talk about music informs how others will think about it. The implausibly long lifespan of “tribal” in musical discourse is proof. Applying that word to Petra Glynt situates Mackenzie’s work within a larger history of racism and oppression and obscures both her politics and very real musical lineage for the sake of convenience. It’s about time we put as much thought into the music we’re trying to represent as the musicians do making it.

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