December/January 2019

by Dr Mark Baynes

X-Factory: Nostalgia, Semiotics, and Drax Project

by Dr Mark Baynes

X-Factory: Nostalgia, Semiotics, and Drax Project

Nostalgia, Semiotics, and Drax Project: Nostalgia’s not what it used to be – perhaps an overly theatrical beginning to this X-Factory piece, but tongue-in-cheek usually gets a smile, or at least a dad-joke groan. But as human beings, nostalgia is one of the fundamental governing forces in our appreciation of music.

This isn’t just due to inculturation, it seems that our biological systems are ready to release an outpouring of dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin, and other neurochemicals that make us feel good when we listen to music from our teenage years (Salimpoor, 2011).

Daniel Levitin, the acclaimed author of This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession notes that the music of our teens is fundamentally intertwined with our social lives (Levitin, 2006), and researchers at the University of Leeds proposed that ‘the emergence of a stable and enduring self’ (i.e. the period between 12 and 22) is the time when you become you. This is the most likely time when relationships between nostalgia and music are formed (Rathbone, 2008).

I have written about Semiotics before (Baynes, 2018). According to Philip Tagg, the author of Music’s Meanings, ‘Semiotics of music in the broadest sense of the term, deals with relations between the sounds we call musical and what those sounds signify to those producing and hearing the sounds in specific sociocultural contexts’ (Tagg, 2015). We explored the detonative and connotative qualities of a track designed to conjure strong emotions of unity and purpose.

With regards to Drax Project, I want to talk about musemes. A museme is a minimal unit of musical meaning, such as a hook, chords sequence, groove, melody – as long as it has meaning in some way it can be considered musematic, and one of the most fundamental musemes used in Toto, by Drax Project is the sample of 80s band, Africa, by Toto, from which Toto, by Drax Project draws its inspiration.
Toto – Africa.

Toto – Africa

I am really not sure if I need to spend much time convincing you of the popularity of Africa –arguably it is the quintessential 80’s feel good tune. Jessica Furseth describes the tune as the Internet’s favourite song, which celebrated a 35 year anniversary last year (Furseth, 2017).

Anyone 45-60 years old would have been teenagers (or close to) when the song was released so may already be in the nostalgia hall of fame for some. But according to (n.d.), Africa has also been sampled by 48 other artists (mainly hip hop and electronic music producers) and as described by Annie Zaleski, it is malleable, transferrable to raging metalcore (Affiance), easygoing bluegrass (Brad Davis’ version on “Pickin’ on the Biggest Hits of the 1980s: Volume 2”) and earnest emo-pop (Relient K) alike (Zaleski, 2017). Furseth urges us to twitter/google search Toto’s Africa to read declarations of happiness, empowerment, stress relief etc; it seems that somewhat cheesy icon of the 80’s can do no wrong.

Drax Project – Toto

So what does this have to do with Drax Project? Well, the lyrical and sample references to Africa leaves us with no doubt that the songs are closely linked. Drum samples in Toto occur at 20s, 1m51s, 2m48s, and to a lesser extent at the beginning of each chorus. The sample is taken from 2m16s of Africa, a sample of a tom-based drum fill built around a rhumba clave pattern derived from Sub-Saharan Africa.

In itself, the fill is a museme representing a significant contribution to contemporary music and a culture extending from post-colonial Afro-Cuban music to Latin jazz, Salsa, R’n’B and Soul infused Latin styles. But in this case, its primary aim is to help reinforce the nostalgia.

Drax Project is a band that formed through busking experiences in Wellington. The band members are mainly from jazz school, propelled into the limelight through online exposure, capitalised with live performances, a deal with Universal, support from Shapeshifter’s Devin Abrams (producer), and live support slots from Lorde, Ed Sheeran, and Six60.

The track is clean, funky, uplifting, and driving. Guitar lines and grooves are impeccable but soulful and the bass playing reminds me of Paul Simon’s Graceland, as does the reversed guitar and vocal fills.

The phrasing of the vocals are especially good in the chorus with swung references, always a pleasure to hear in contemporary music. Having passed through jazz school myself, respect is often given to highly skilled session musicians such as Toto, and Drax Project are carrying on the tradition of great playing in this track, a ‘tip of the hat’ if you like to earlier times.

Daniels (2017) reminds us that the trend at the moment seems to be looking back to the past and the power of emotion, and Bowen (2017) suggests we are now in the era of ‘the end of forgetting’, with websites such as The Nostalgia Machine and the Museum of Endangered Sounds inducing nostalgic emotion on demand, where this was once left to chance. My cynical voice might argue that Drax Project are jumping on this fast-moving bandwagon too, but knowing jazz players a little, I suspect that they are just, like me, a fan of the feeling of Toto’s Africa, in the playing and the sense that anything is possible.

Well, it seemed to work for Drax Project, didn’t it? Good on them!

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