Decolonizing Electronic Music Starts With Its Software

By Tom Faber

Most electronic music tools (along with the guitar, piano, and wind instruments) are set by default to a tuning system called equal temperament, which is the foundation of most Western classical music from the past two centuries. This does not allow for microtonality—the notes between a standard piano’s keys—which is commonly used in musical traditions outside of Europe. Through his research, Allami discovered that it had been possible to explore microtonality using MIDI, the language of electronic music tools, since 1992, but software developers had not implemented functions to make microtonal tunings intuitive to use. As one product manager of a popular music notation program told him, they simply didn’t believe that there was a market for such features.

Allami expresses a keen sense of injustice about the young global musicians struggling to make digital sounds that feel authentically local. “It’s not that the music they make will sound ‘more Western,’ but it is forced into an unnatural rigidity,” Allami says. “The music stops being in tune with itself. A lot of the culture will be gone. It’s like cooking without your local spices, or speaking without your local accent. For me, that’s a remnant of a colonial, supremacist paradigm. The music is colonized in some way.”

This was certainly the experience of Kenyan producer Slikback, one of the musicians invited to test-drive Apotome. “I find Ableton pushes me towards following the beat grid,” he says. “Everything sounds somehow Western—very mechanical, not organic like the rough tones and raw drums I heard growing up in Nairobi. Even as I try to break away from the loops and the 1-2-3-4 drive of these music tools, I always end up back there somehow.”

Unassuming as they may seem, these technologies are far from neutral. Like social media platforms, dating apps, and all data-driven algorithms, music production tools have the unconscious biases of their creators baked into their architecture. If a musician opens a new composition and they are given a 4/4 beat and equal tempered tuning by default, it is implied that other musical systems do not exist, or at least that they are of less value.

In 2012, the musician and writer Jace Clayton launched Sufi Plug-Ins, a suite of Ableton tools that explore North African music and culture, including a drum machine for handclaps, synthesizers hardwired to Arabic scales, and a tool that respectfully lowers your computer’s volume at the time of the Muslim call to prayer. While the cultural limitations of software like Ableton and FL Studio have not stopped artists from Latin America, China, East Africa, and the MENA region from finding workarounds to create some of the most compelling electronic music in recent years, Clayton argues these innovations do not negate the need for new tools.

“Sure, Ableton is flexible, and on the one hand you can say these great producers from Kenya are using German software to make the funkiest music imaginable,” Clayton says. “But wouldn’t it be nice if we could extend the same creativity we have making music into how we make our tools? We might even end up with Germans having to fight against African software to make their metronomic techno.”

Seeing Leimma and Apotome in action during CTM’s digital showcases last month was far from an academic exercise in postcolonial theory—there was the thrill of musicians witnessing their horizons broadening right before our eyes. Across five performances, artists from around the world used the software to play sets ranging from austere experimentalism to raucous dance tracks. Indonesian producer Wahono adopted the tuning systems of wind and reed instruments from Sumatra and Java, while Tunisian producer Deena Abdelwahed called on the tunings of beloved Arabic songs from her childhood. Slikback drew inspiration from traditional Kenyan trance rituals, and found Apotome—with its generative system that creates music according to parameters set by the artist—pushed him to define his own sound more clearly. All three producers said that they plan to use Leimma and Apotome moving forward.