By Karl Galloway
Written for Come Hear NC
North Carolina Music is American music. Be it blues, jazz, hip hop, folk, bluegrass, or beyond, Carolina will be there.
With such a broad influence and history, finding local artists can be daunting. It’s easy enough to go to Spotify or Bandcamp and search North Carolina, but caught in the paradox of the age of information and spoiled for choice, we can become lost in our options and succumb to the larger algorithms that direct so much of our media intake. And for new, young, musicians, finding an audience on these platforms can be next to impossible, let alone making a living from it.
That’s why the Tracks Online Music Library is so exciting and needed.
A collaboration between two town departments, Chapel Hill Public Library and Chapel Hill Community Arts & Culture, and funded for its first year by a grant from the State Library of North Carolina, Tracks offers a commercial-free curated sound, prepared by cultural resource professionals and artists from the region. Tracks feature albums from over 70 hyper-local musicians and bands from the Triangle area, including modern county duo Blue Cactus, Durham world music collective Triangle Afrobeat Orchestra, post-jazz instrumentalists dust lights, hip-hop ambassador and educator Kevin “Rowdy” Rowsey, and post-punk trio Fitness Womxn. But there are many more to explore! The collection is entirely free to stream on mobile devices and desktop and if you have a Chapel Hill Library card, you can download and save your favorite music.
The backend management of Tracks’ collection is driven by a partnership with a small company called Rabble, whose mission is to provide software to libraries that allows them to move forward with their visions. But Tracks is a lot more than an archive. The founders of Rabble, themselves librarians, believe that more than anything music libraries are a way of doing community outreach. Rather than being simply transactional, they build community with venues, radio stations, and producers. Tracks’ mission, at its core, is to support local talent, both financially and in terms of providing broader reach. Community curators, who are creatives in their own right, volunteer to seek out diverse music in the Triangle area, providing insider access to the creative products of a culturally rich community. Tracks work with local radio stations who, already knowing the local scene, guide new musicians to the platform, even as Tracks connects other artists to the radio stations. The platform offers streamlined access to artist bios, and options to support local talent. It fosters collaborations across genres that have become self-sustaining and provide a forum for conversation via the Chapel Hill Public Library, a trusted source of information. Ultimately, Tracks’ dynamic approach does what Spotify cannot: build a local community and a more sustainable ecosystem of creatives and consumers.
The Chapel Hill Library is just one of a few institutions that have developed this kind of platform. Other cities with similar programs include Nashville, Seattle, Pittsburgh, and Austin, which makes the Triangle’s particular brand of music production stand out even more. When asked what makes the region’s sound unique Molly Luby, Tracks Coordinator and Special Projects Manager for the Chapel Hill Public Library said, “Hyper local collection reflects the community, so of course it’s not going to be the same in any other area. There’s a DIY spirit that moves throughout our local music scene. A lot of the music that is on Tracks is produced by artists themselves and it’s an extremely diverse collection.”
Tracks is particularly unique in that it has operated almost entirely within the context of the Black Lives Matter movement and the COVID-19 pandemic. This is reflected in two compilations, created in direct response to these culture-shaping and world-changing events and to support local music a few months into the Stay-At-Home order. The first, We Rise as Allies, is produced by Kevin “Kaze” Thomas, with art by Chris Frisina, and directly addresses the summer’s Black Lives Matter protests. The second, Isolation Illumination, is produced by Thom Canova with art by Cassidy Goff (also known as musician Alo Ver), is inspired by the experience of pandemic quarantine.
We Rise as Allies addresses the rage, reflection, and duty that we all have been forced to consider in the wake of the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and many others. Kaze, who has been part of the Triangle music scene for nearly 20 years, is a gifted musician that has signed to major labels including Universal/Motown and Rawkus Records, as well as having his own label, Soul Dojo. We Rise as Allies showcases his talent as a producer who knows his musical territory.
The first track features Americana duo Violet Bell, made up of Lizzy Ross and Omar Ruiz-Lopez, who draw inspiration from ancient mythology and the natural world, particularly the rolling Piedmont. Their contribution here is more grounded in our modern human experience, responding to a challenge from Kaze on the practical role of white allies. In the track “Can’t Say Nothing,” Lizzy Ross acknowledges her white privilege and experience that lies on the other side of what Dubois called “the veil.”
Sonny Miles is young, but his heroes are pushing a century. His name is an homage to jazz legends Sonny Stitt and Miles Davis which tells you just about all you need to know about the artist. He lends his sound, steeped in classic Black music, to the track “The Ultimate.” His new sound has even caught Barack Obama’s ear.
“Good Trouble,” by J Rowdy and featuring Nathan Harris and Dasan Ahanu, invokes John Lewis’ famous words, urging us to consider the meaning of transgression in a country built on the deeply immoral act of enslavement, as well as our duty to respond to the ramifications of such inception. Lewis’ words are also full of hope, and Lydia Salett Dudley’s succeeding track “Winner in You” lifts the listener up. She and her band are products of North Carolina Central University’s Jazz Program, and her voice soars.
XOXOK rounds off the compilation with a love song “All In,” perhaps reminding us of the rewards of a commitment to someone (or something) beautiful. This volume is important listening and beyond the tender, poignant, and frank testimonies of its artists, its construction is a reminder to always seek out local viewpoints, in music as well as global matters. Oh, and it’s just really great listening.
The second compilation, Isolation in Illumination, is produced by Thom Canova. For the Indy Week, and of the volume Canova said “People get to spend extra time during this isolation working on their track. And what this does for people who get to listen to it, is it illuminates what artists are doing on their own during this crazy, crazy time. I think that hearing what artists have to say right now, while we’re all stuck at home, is a good way to do it, because we can’t go see them live and get the full effect.”
At times frenetic and at others calm, Isolation in Illumination reflects the creative spaces of artists who, like all of us, are experiencing new levels of separation. “Neon,” by Shelles, winds through vibrating surf sounds and focuses on light, which shines on others as well as the singer. Other tracks take us through daily repeated thoughts that occupy the space created by a sudden dearth of activity, errands, and physical community. “Landmark Motor Hotel Song,” by Pretend Chess, spins around these replayed ruminations, and “6 am” by Ghost Guns brings a heavy electric soundtrack to staring at the ceiling. “Love” by BANGZZ feels like a rejection of apathy and “Put your Hand on the Plow and Hold on (Hard Drive)” brings a foot-stompin’ old-time trance tune to get you moving. Like most music, these songs can be interpreted in many ways but if these tracks can provide a vehicle for your own thoughts during this lonely time (or just an uplifting soundtrack) then the volume has done its job. Turn it up and do those dishes.
Both of these volumes are timely, and Tracks’ ability to pivot in response to current affairs is indicative of its awareness, as well as its commitment to the creative community, which will always produce art inspired by its context.
In terms of lessons learned during this process, Melissa Bartoletta, Marketing and Communications Coordinator for Chapel Hill Community Arts and Culture says she tends to look ahead. But what she is sure of is that the relationships built so far are not going anywhere. Artists communicate with Tracks, letting them know about new music and media mentions. And Tracks acts as a liaison, amplifying their voices, and enriching the community they serve. According to Melissa “it’s been a joyful process, something that we have needed during the past months.”
In a time when we all need connection (and music!) more than ever, this project is particularly special. Whatever 2021 holds for us, Come Hear NC is looking forward to hearing what’s next on the playlist.