Damn! Someone has beaten me to it! When listening to Digebasse by Chaii, arguably one of the most prominent features of the track is its use of rhythm, in particular the regular use of triplets, quavers/semiquavers, polyrhythm and finally a ‘scotch snap’, a musical and rhythmic device I learnt at school, growing up in the UK.
Anyone reading this column may be familiar with my semi-regular use of semiotics to analyse popular music, and to do that I often borrow from the work of Philip Tagg. Coincidentally Tagg has recorded a video talking extensively about the origins of the Scotch Snap, from which I was going to build my analytical argument.
However, I noticed after searching online that this has already been done to a certain degree in a study by Vulture into the music of Ariana Grande, and also by jazz musicologist Adam Neely. That said, in Steal Like an Artist, Austin Kleon reminds us that ‘everything that needs to be said has already been said, but no one was listening, so it needs to be said again’.
With the spirit of Kleon in mind and borrowing from the work of others I am writing about Digebasse in X-Factory this time as Chaii has a strong connection with New Zealand, having moved to Christchurch from Iran when she was just 8 years old.
Firstly, borrowing from Vulture, the Scotch Snap is described as ‘a bouncy, emphatic rhythm in which a short note on a strong beat is followed by a longer note on a weak one. It has been in use, and at times in vogue, since at least the 17th century. And recently, it’s become one of the most prominent rhythmic approaches in rap (and hence, pop and R&B)’.
It seems that this device is often associated with Afro-American music because of its recent ubiquity into the hip hop world, however after studying its etymophony (and as suggested by its name) ‘the rhythm is particularly prevalent in the music of the British Isles, and especially common in Scottish song since the mid-18th century’. Tagg notes that in the late 17th century, scotch snaps were heard in English art music ‘as something local, archaic, as rurally uncouth’. Hopefully, these days things have moved on! The rhythm was a common motif that immigrants from the British Isles brought with them to the eastern United States.
In Digibasse, whilst the scotch snap isn’t used a huge amount (in fact it is only heard at the beginning of each verse – 0m1s and 1m05s – over the lyrics ‘early, early’), this placement of this rhythmic device puts it front-and-centre, prominent in our mind’s eye if you like. All other lyrics are spoken over a combination of triplet and quaver/semiquaver rhythms, fairly typical of hip hop music.
Additionally, Digebasse switches between 106 bpm in the chorus and its half-time cousin 58 bpm over verses. The half-time feel allows for the flow to be divided arguably using a variety of subdivisions due to the space that the groove creates. Finally, the bassline in the verses is particularly interesting as it is displaced ahead of the beat by one semiquaver, so creating an unsettling feeling. The polyrhythmic flow of the lyrics combined with stark contrast between verse (unsettling) and chorus (positive) is particularly striking in this composition, and the limited but precisely placed harmonic movement provides prosody between lyrics and rhythm.
The harmony is relatively simple, nearly the whole tune sitting over an Am pedal, with only the chorus having any kind of chord structure Am | G | D | C | Am | G | D | E, largely based on an A Aeolian mode. The placement of the harmony in the chorus section connotes movement and joy over the positive message of the chorus lyrics (see below), whilst the lack of harmony of the verse serves as stark contrast supported by an arrogant bass line, static harmony, and darker and more introspective lyrics.
Additionally, the use of the Farsi language in parts is intriguing sonically, and unsurprising, Chaii is still strongly connected to her Persian roots. In a Radio NZ article she states how Digebasse (meaning ‘enough’) was released on International Women’s Day, just a week before the Christchurch terrorist attack. Within days the track had clocked 700,000 views.
She explains the song was originally about shining a positive light on the Middle East. “I just wanted to show some scenery and some colour and people having a good time. Just people like everyone else.” It would seem that Chaii’s track became a soundtrack to a significant event in New Zealand’s recent history, and as a result serves as a poignant reminder of xenophobia.
Digebasse is a carefully crafted song, containing contrast between sections, polyphony, intelligent use of prosody both in verse and chorus sections, and like other songs before it (e.g. Childish Gambino’s This Is America) addresses a significant topic, one particularly raw still here in NZ. It doesn’t come as a surprise that Digebasse has proven so popular. I look forward to hearing more from Chaii in the future.
In the morning
Birds be calling
Got my backpack on I’m rolling
Into the city my headphones on and
Blocked the world owe nothing to no one
Missed me when your day has gone
When your day is gone
You’ll be lucky if I save some
Yeah I’ll be patient but its late now
I’m in a better place yeah I’m laid back
Once upon a time there were the days that
I would agree with whatever was said
Now wanna be free, everything I could be
Wanna be seen, follow my dream
Giving it 100%, me and my team
She untouchable getting to do what was just so impossible
She got no negative on her, so crazy so loveable
Is this positive love is this positive vibe
Is just positive love is just positive vibe
Dr Mark Baynes is Programme Manager for the Bachelor of Musical Arts degree at MAINZ, Auckland; a degree program that fosters students’ ability to find their own musical voice, culminating with the creation of a capstone project such as an album, film score or music for game audio. For more information visit mainz.ac.nz.