“Rhythm is the mother tongue.” That phrase is printed on stickers that Mecca Bodega passes out to fans and is the perfect philosophy for New York City’s most gently persistent group of percussionists. No matter what the members of this band are doing, onstage or off, they seem to move through life with a special understanding of the role of rhythm.
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That awareness makes them know how a group can write a deeply meaningful song using only percussion, using the same principles that apply to building a career in hypnotic music that’s constantly on exploration’s edge. “It’s looking ahead and leaving space for other things to happen,” says Mecca Bodega co-founder Paul Mueller, “while keeping the groove of the whole thing in mind. There will be spots where stuff will drop out, and you’ve got to not overplay. Simpler is better at times because you have the backbone, and that can leave space for other instruments to get on top.”
“Every instrument is an object that has a sweet spot,” adds Mueller’s brother and band co-founder, Marc. “So if you spend a little time with the object, whether it’s a piece of junk or a high-end ethnic instrument, just figure out what makes this thing speak and how you make it speak. There’s a relationship there that has to come first, and that relationship has to be brought out to the band and the other people.”
Don’t let such minimalist musings fool you, however. With the release of their seventh album, Skin, Mecca Bodega has made a move away from the lighter-than-air elevations of previous discs like Rhythm Rail, which were often led by Paul Mueller’s introspective skill on the hammered dulcimer. Now, with the advent of their own hand-built recording studio, the instruments of the drum set have become the percussive driving force, layered with rhythms from multiple corners of the world: West Africa, the Middle East, America, and beyond. The results are as entrancing as ever but with thicker centers, bigger densities, and hints of even more drumming possibilities on the horizon.
Back Above Ground. For years, Mecca Bodega has served as a prime example of how to get somewhere by following the muse. While other bands plotted to conquer the top rock clubs, Mecca Bodega exposed themselves to thousands of people yearly by going underground – playing in New York City’s subway tunnels and stations through the Music Under New York program. From there, their arresting rhythmic approach – which features djembes, dumbeks, frame drums, ashikos, congas, djun djuns, caixixi, gas tanks (in B flat), hammered dulcimer, didgeridoo, horns, and even some bass and guitar when they feel like it – has kept of going to intriguing places. From HBO’s classic Subway Stories to Spike Lee films, NPR, and an endearing reputation on the festival circuit, the band has learned how to make it all work by making things add up.
For Paul, the key to taking the band in a new direction stemmed not from a creative impulse but a technical one. By building a studio next to his upstate New York home, he found he was able not only to record the band and their ideas once they struck, he also had unfettered access to a sonically isolated room that left him free to rock out on the drum kit once again. “Whereas before I played drum kit patterns on the dulcimer, ” he explains, “now on the kit I’m using one rack tom, the kick, and snare, but I’m approaching them like three separate drums. I can get different sounds out of the snare, and the way I mixed it on the CD, the snare sound isn’t the same all the way through, it’s just another drum in the vocabulary.”
“When I broke it down for myself like that, it allowed me to play differently than before. It connects to an important concept for players, which is breaking habits. If these drums were three djembes on stands, I’d be approaching them differently because I’d be standing. You can totally bust all the boundaries, and that’s why we feel we’re doing something new with Skin. We’re not consciously trying to do something different, but we are trying to approach things differently so we can break our own habits. That’s so much more exciting: You’re challenging yourself and doing something more fun, instead of the same thing over and over.”
Taking a New Road. An ancient instrument that comes from the zither family, the hammered dulcimer design helped give birth to another percussively melodic instrument, the piano. With Mecca Bodega, Paul Mueller uses a hand-held hammer to strike the two-strings-per-note layout, creating beautifully ringing sustained notes and harmonies on songs like “Anytime Is A Good Time.” I definitely feel like I progressed on hammered dulcimer for this CD,” he says. “This time, I wrote the parts out and had to actually learn it, often leading with my left hand, which I wouldn’t usually do. I didn’t want it to be the main focus, I wanted it to support and I used delay effects and other things that I hadn’t done before.
“I think the dulcimer playing on this CD is a lot more melodic than in the past. Before, I was using it to play street music and get someone’s attention really fast, playing really rhythmic and constant. This is a completely different approach: It’s playing less and getting more out of it.”
With its multilayered gravy of percussion instruments, bass, French horn, didgeridoo, and other found elements, Skin shifts gears in a way that is more reflective of the band’s constantly rotating habits onstage and at festivals, as songs like the unusually heavy opener “Ravine” give way to mentally spatial tunes like “Flock of Mangos” later on. “Live, we have stand-up percussion areas with metals, djembes played with sticks, and we’re constantly moving through that,” says Paul. “We also use the minidisk player with effects, playing out taped travels that I’ve done. When I’m traveling, instead of taking pictures, I take a little portable DAT machine, record things, edit them down, and when we play live I bring them up with the minidisk. When people are dancing, we don’t want a point when the song’s sound stops. Instead we’ll segue into the next part improvising, so it’s a constant thing that’s going.”
“It’s interesting because we have four or five rhythmic combinations that can come from changing instruments all the time,” Marc adds. “We have the djembe up against the kick and the carpet cleaning bucket and then [djembe master] Dr. Djobi’s on traditional drums. Onstage, we’re constantly switching.”
War Against Tourism. While the gig that helped get them international recognition-playing in the belly of New York City’s vast and heavily traveled subway system – is still important to Mecca Bodega, they acknowledge that violent world events and the resultant increase in security for public transportation has had a direct impact on the music they play there. “A lot of things are affecting the subway playing,” says Paul. “The bombings in London are a recent example. I think there’s a lot more police and military people around, and from my experience that’s actually causing more tension. In some of the areas where we play, I’ll see three police officers and two army people, and when a person who’s commuting sees that, they’re going to keep moving [instead of stopping to watch the group]. Also, when there’s nothing happening, security feels the need to do something, so if they see a crowd developing, they get nervous about that and they tend to keep things moving along.
“I think some of the military people don’t understand that when we’re in the subways playing, if people see a street musician there, they feel safer. We wouldn’t be set up there unless we feel safe. Plus, if we’re there, that means there’s music, and it helps people not think about all those things. It’s still a fun way for us to connect to people in an immediate way, sell CDs, and promote the music without any peripheral problems like club owners.”
Building A Home Base. Fortunately for Mecca Bodega, they now have the ideal controlled environment waiting for them in the form of Sound Tree Studio. While it wasn’t an easy project – construction took three years instead of the original two-month timeframe Paul had expected – the building process proves that any drummer who’s thinking of creating a personal recording space should go for it, even if they’ve never done anything like it before. I’ve always wanted to have a studio,” Paul explains. “Since I was a teenager, I worked as an audio engineer at a lot of different radio stations. We’ve had the opportunity to record at different studios, but because I didn’t have my own space, I wasn’t able to work on my stuff without stopping and breaking everything down.”
“I just wanted to have a space that was comfortable and also great-sounding for recording acoustic instruments. It’s really hard in a lot of studios to get good drum sounds, but I’m really happy with this space. I figured it out on paper with all these formulas, but when I actually started building it, what I found is that it’s like tuning an instrument. There’s reflections going on, and although it’s small, there’s certain areas that give it space or make it sound tighter, so I can move around the room and get certain sounds.”
A natural-sounding space that mixes professional tones with a homemade vibe that comes through clearly on Skin, the making of Sound Tree benefited strongly from Marc’s daytime career as an architect, but in many ways was also a DIY at its finest. “I had a good amount of prior acoustic knowledge,” Paul says, “but I also referred to some books for dimensions, and there’s a lot of information available through the companies that I bought acoustical treatments from that have different ways to build a studio within a budget in a smaller space. It’s basically just reading, applying it, and using your ears.
“My advice to anyone who wants to try this is that you’ve got to know what you’re going to go for and just focus on achieving that because you can get really lost! A lot of times, people don’t budget things like the cost of cables or connectors, and you can save a lot of money making your own stuff. Instead of buying multi boxes, I just soldered them myself. You get to be a lunatic up all night soldering over and over again, but in the end it saves you thousands and thousands of dollars. The key thing is to do it right the first time: We went overkill, with floating room-within-a-room construction, and ran enough power all over so I wouldn’t have to break a wall in the future. I also didn’t want to use it for just myself. I wanted to record other groups, so I tried to think of different situations where it could be used. Ultimately, if you try to cut corners, you’ll just have to redo it later.”
Festival Express. Outside the confines of the studio or the subway, one of the most powerful venues for Mecca Bodega’s constantly morphing, improvisational rhythms has been the festival circuit. While club stages do show up on their schedule, the band has been able to make festivals a reliable source for steady gigs and an ever-growing fan base. Since some festivals are run extremely well and others aren’t, Marc offers up a solid list of criteria for what makes them work. “The most important thing for me is that the festival creates a sense of community and place that’s nurturing,” he notes. “If they’ve considered security, quietness, handicapped needs, and food vending, then everyone at the festival knows there’s a common goal to support each other, with live music to learn and grow. The ones that suffer are the ones that miss those qualities due to a bad site, lack of promotion, lack of funding, or even lack of luck, like bad weather.”
Paul urges bands interested in hooking up with the expansive festival circuit to get familiar with the events before they attempt to get on the bill. “There’s so many types of festivals and music: bluegrass, hard rock, jam band, world music. People really have to be honest with themselves and know if their music will be a good thing at a certain festival. It can be like a club, in that the promoter wants to make a lineup that makes sense together. It doesn’t have to be one specific type of music, but something that complements each other. Also, choose an area: We play a lot in the Northeast, so we play a lot of festivals in that region as well, so the promoters will know, ‘Okay, these guys will draw.’”
Just be ready for randomness when you hit the grounds. “You may play much earlier or later than you expect,” Marc says. “You have to be roadworthy and able to hang out. There’s also a lot of partying. A lot of people want to go to the festival, do their show, and leave right away. We have a lot of fun, network, get other contacts, and since the playing part is fun for us, if we’re last, we’ll say, ‘How long can we play?’ If it’s two or three hours, the promoter will be psyched because he has entertainment that’s heavy groove party stuff that went late, so that when people go to bed they feel like they went the distance.”
They Got Rhythm. While Mecca Bodega put a great deal of thought into finding venues for their unique sound, when they get behind the drums, thinking is out and the purity of bodies in motion is in. “People can relate to dance,” Paul says simply. “People can just dance to this stuff. They don’t have to think about it so hard, so it takes the brain out and goes to the body. When that happens, it’s easier to connect to people. A good way to get there is to play the same rhythm over and over again, until you’re not conscious of it anymore.”
“If you start to enjoy your mistakes, those are new ideas coming out,” adds Marc. “I can get in a rut, and then find that if I tried to do the rhythms with one side of my body and flip it over, something else will come out. Then I’d realize that part of my body was frozen. It’s fun unfreezing my body and going into other dimensions. One way to do that is try to do everything with you left hand if you’re right-handed: Brush your teeth, open your car door. Soap in the shower is a funny one – I always do that in the same way. You start to realize you have patterns for everything you do. Once you start to break that, it’s a whole new ballgame.”
Could more Mecca Bodegas on the planet contribute to world peace? Maybe not, but there’s no question that prolonged listening to this group’s music has a way of teleporting the mind to an actively relaxed dimension – a state that they figure will have a positive effect on the rest of you as well. “If people start to understand where some of these rhythms are coming from, we’d be more open to people’s differences,” Paul Mueller reasons. “As far as what we’re doing, though, we basically just want people to dance and have a good time when we play, just bring joy through body movement. I don’t have any grandiose vision as to where we fit in.”
Marc Mueller, however, may see something larger in what Mecca Bodega has to offer. “A lot of these rhythms we’re doing are form countries that are isolated or shunned because of political reasons,” he concludes. “But what we’ve found is that people are open to sounds from all over the world, because we are from all over the world.”
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A rain stick beckons the starry sky above, softly splashing a tiny wave of audio texture into the night. So the ceremony begins. Like a buzzing bee, resonated tones of a didgeridoo begin to swirl, spinning in a modulated hum of droning vibration. A steady cymbal click marks time, and people in front of the stage are already swaying. A hammered dulcimer, congas and hand drums of all descriptions gradually start speaking with each other in increasingly rapid and urgent phrases. Energy crackles.
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The gently swaying bodies have now advanced to a state of animated wiggling. Some folks are dancing with abandon – not the twist or jitterbug, but a freeform, tai-chi expression of the spirit we’ve all seen, and admit it or not, have experienced ourselves. Clearly, the energy between the dance floor and stage is flowing freely now, and the intensity continues to build.
By the time the bass and guitar join in, Mecca Bodega has worked yet another festival crowd into a bone-shaking tribal frenzy. Onstage, the band feels it, too. “A lot of us in this group play music as an uplifting thing,” said Mecca Bodega cofounder, Paul Mueller. “A lot of times, if you’re playing rhythm and drums, you can get into a space with yourself where you actually have an out-of-body experience. And then if you’re kicking out all this energy, I think other energy can get attracted to that, and that’s when you have a really good experience – when you have people playing music and people listening and responding to that. That’s when everyone together is kicking energy back and forth, and then everyone is having a great experience.”
Mecca Bodega’s pilgrimage to New York City began in Massapequa, Long Island. That’s where Mueller and his older brother, Marc, grew up. There’s a five-year difference between the two, but there’s one thing they have in common – the drums. “My parents went through a lot having two drummers, laughed Paul. Neighbors, too. Years later when the brothers reunited to live in Brooklyn, it was the neighbors who actually influenced the beat brothers musical direction. “We both were coming from a drum kit angle,” explained Paul. “When we moved back together in Brooklyn, it was more difficult for us to play drum kits because of the sound being too loud in an apartment, so we just started to get into hand drumming more.”
Limitations aside, making music in New York was important to the Muellers. “New York really is, I think, the center of rhythm, especially in this country, as far as exposing people to different instruments and different drumming rhythms from all over the world,” declared Paul. “There’s such a variety of people living in New York; so there’s a really big drumming community.”
Maybe so, but nobody else in that community does what Mecca Bodega does, and its recordings prove it. Dating back to ’93, Mecca Bodega has released four independently produced CDs, including last year’s critically acclaimed Live album. In addition, Subway Stories, a soundtrack to an HBO movie of the same name, was released in ’97 on the Trax/Hybrid label. Clearly, Mecca Bodega has carved its own niche. “We play percussion-driven music that you can dance to, and hopefully, lose yourself in,” explained Paul. “All of us come from more of a rock-oriented background so we’re integrating those elements into it as well. What we’re doing isn’t really traditional; we’re playing instruments with our approach. When I play some of these different hand drums, a lot of times I’m taking rhythms that I would play on a drum set and playing them on a hand drum.”
Paul’s bother, Marc, takes the transmutation one step further. “My brother is really into picking up pieces of garbage, or metal things, or anything, and just kind of making instruments out of them,” revealed the younger Mueller with a respectful chuckle. “So we started to combine those two ideas with using rhythm as the main driving force behind it. The two of us just went out and started to set up shows in downtown New York. When we started to do that, other people playing different instruments saw it as an opportunity to get involved because it was rhythm, so different people that are more involved in melody and things, like that started to get involved.”
First onboard was guitarist Marlon Cherry. Call him the melody man. A multi-talented musician who also plays bass and sings, Cherry’s presence made a huge impact. “At that point, it was more like a band was starting because there were three of us,” Paul recalled. Then came didgeridoodler Simon 7. “People started to hear that we were really open to having people sit in with us, continued Paul. “We were basically open to trying anything. At that point, I wasn’t really familiar with that didgeridoo, so Simon showed me what he did, and I said, ‘All right, fine.. He came up in the second set and has stayed with us, off and on, ever since.”
Although plenty of musicians continue to sit in with Mecca Bodega, the band’s core unit is rounded out by Kevin Huppert on bass. Huppert and Paul Mueller played together in prior bands, and their rhythm section connection is the foundation of Mecca Bodega’s earthy, primal sound. That sound works well at music and camping festivals. “They’ve been really good for us,” said Paul of the summer festivals. “People are really into dancing and the sound systems are good, and it’s a good vibe all around, with people camping out. People that go to those things are going specifically for the music.”
And it’s Mecca Bodega’s music that is catching peoples’ attention. “They may hear something that they’ve never heard before, or some instruments played they’ve never heard played before, or never heard together,” explained Paul. “We make music for people to dance to really. It’s all basically around drum rhythms, so a lot of the time, some of the songs will come from the rhythms first and the other elements will go on top of that, rather than the other way around.”
Mecca Bodega’s rhythmic approach and the uninhibited reaction by its dance-happy fans have been known to turn the group’s live performances into “tribal experiences.” Paul Mueller agrees with the terminology. “When people say tribal, they mean a community type of thing,” he said. “Unfortunately, in western culture and the way everything is progressing with technology, I think that’s the whole downfall – that there’s no community anymore. It’s people living in boxes next to each other and not communicating with each other.
“I think that’s how you can get music to really work,” he continued. “…to have a sense of community while you are playing with the people you are playing with, and also with the audience – and not have it like here’s a bunch of guys playing on a stage and we’re going to entertain and that’s going to be the end of it. I think if the approach is more like there’s a community of people that are playing the music together, as a community, and it’s kind of like a family, and then there’s people in the audience that are also a part of that community and family, then everybody feels like they’re connected somehow. And they are, you know?”
Sometimes the best place to find music that truly captures the city’s vibe is to hit the mode of transportation that captures its speed – the subway. One of the most acclaimed, yet down-to-earth, subway bands is Mecca Bodega, whose platform performances are legendary. The five percussionists create their own vocabulary of sound using gasoline tanks, washing machine innards, light fixtures, and even a didgeridoo (a long tube instrument Australian Aborigine musicians use). The band’s unique percussive mix lends itself to a world flavor that complements New York’s diverse texture.
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With whooping background noises, experimental and funky Prince-like guitar lines, thunderous percussion, and dancing notes from a hammered dulcimer, the band clicks along like the hands on your favorite wristwatch – precisely and comfortable. What makes Mecca Bodega stand out from the rest is that nearly every member of the band plays the skins. Whereas most bands start with the guitar, Mecca Bodega works around a basic rhythm. “We build our songs from the groove up,” says Paul Mueller, one of the band’s two founding brothers (the other is Marc). Like true renegades, they take pride in their contrariness. “We turn what we hear inside out,” says Marc Mueller.
Having played underground for years, the band has had its share of strange experiences. “Nothing surprises us anymore,” says Marlon Cherry, the band’s guitarist and sometimes percussionist. The band has played every type of gig imaginable – from funerals to festivals, in town and around the country – all in the good name of world music.
“Because of the explosion of computers, people are thinking globally,” says Marc Mueller. “The rest of the world seems to play music more for spiritual reasons than for money. The boundaries of music are constantly expanding.. It was for this reason that the boys decided to seek out their unique range of instruments. Paul Mueller incorporated the hammered dulcimer into the band’s sound. The dulcimer – referred to in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem Kubla Khan – predates the piano as the Middle Eastern string instruments, which is played with light hammers.
The CD that the band is most busy promoting these days is Subway Stories (Hybrid Records), the soundtrack to the HBO original movie of the same name. One listen to the CD’s mega grooves and you’ll feel the third rail intensity of a world-boogie train rumbling past. Though Jonathan Demme, executive producer of the movie, originally intended to record a different band for each of the ten stories in the film, he and the various directors like Mecca so much that they handed the soundtrack over to them. This allowed the band to do whatever they wanted, including bringing nearly all of their percussive arsenal into the studio. Homemade instruments made of plastic, wood and metal were all fair game. “We played almost everything for ten days,” laughs Paul Mueller, whose percussion has been featured on the soundtracks to Spike Lee’s He Got Game and Get On The Bus. One jumping voice on the disc is M. Doughty of the band Soul Coughing, whose hypnotic raps join Mecca’s beats and buzzing sounds to make for a staggering “Love On The A-Train.. Despite their worldly success, the band continues to play down under. “We touch people that we normally wouldn’t,” says Marc Mueller. “Everyday I see things which amaze me. Usually, they are magical things.”
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What is it about some recordings that make us want to listen to them over and over. I know it’s not simply (or even necessarily) “perfection” of performance and engineering. I have lots of impeccable recordings that I’ve only listened to once or twice. I think it may be beyond a question of taste; it has something to do with spiritual nutrition, the need we have for sonic inspiration, stimulation, refreshment and healing. If you think about it, your tape/CD/record collection is probably partly reference library, partly “identity reminders” and partly medicine cabinet.
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Sometimes I find the most refreshing discs are the ones I understand least – that is, my mind can’t follow them, and so gets a rest. Mecca Bodega’s “Hammered Dulcimer” by Marc and Paul Mueller is a hypnotic percussion improv recording with hammered dulcimer in the mix along with drums, didjeridoo, bass, bagpipes, violin, French horn and vocals. The concept seems to be somewhere between Machine Age and New Age; the cover graphic is of some piece of equipment from a boiler room, and the inside illustrations are of “split hub used on horizontal engine,” “section of cylinder head showing valves,” “main crank bearing on horizontal engine” and “crank shaft.. There’s no explanation for the pictures or for the titles of the pieces: Rosetta Peers, Kentucky Fried Medulla, The Giving Pants, and The Gingerbread Goat. Most of these pieces are pretty minimalistic, even mechanistic, but all the parts seem smooth and well-oiled. The dulcimer adds a shimmer like that of polished metal. I’ve used this tape to clear my head at the end of the day several times since it arrived, and it’s quite effective.
Mecca Bodega is a four-man, largely percussion-based ensemble that has made a name for itself in the underground passageways and tunnels of New York City’s subway system. Subway Stories is both the score to HBO’s original film of the same name and the band’s third release, a pulsating, multi-textured collection of rhythmic instrumental pieces that parallels the chaotic bustle of the city’s daily commuter rush as well as the ancient tribal atmospherics from which the band takes its instrumental cues.
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The opening track, “Love on the A Train,” is probably its most accessible. With guest vocals from Soul Coughing’s M. Doughty and musical help from old-school rapper Schooly D, the track pairs Doughty’s hipster beat-rap with shuffling acoustic rhythm augmented by ominous environmental samples (screeching trains, distant horns), all the while maintaining its steady, head-nodding rhythm. The rest of the album amply shows off the group’s on-the-spot improvisational interchange. Percussionists Paul and Marc Mueller juggle an arsenal of tom-toms, congas, dulcimers, washing machine parts, bells and assorted plastic, metal and wood junk percussion; guitarist Marlon Cherry coasts over their dense groundwork with accents of flamenco, jazz-fusion and funk plucking; and didjeridoo player Simon 7 injects an array of hypnotic gurgling and throbbing flavor to the swaggering groove. Check “Underground,” “Fern’s Nightmare” and “Rats on the Tracks” for a sampling of the band’s expansive textures and styles.
NEW YORK, NY – The drum circle was a powerful experience for communal relations in former times. Today, that experience is still an essential part of the musical community. Yet living in a culture which is so saturated with stale beats and overplayed lyrics, many people have strayed from indigenous tribal rhythms to listen to a more generic (and spiritually bland) genre, often depending on the voice as the main source of inspiration.
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Don’t get me wrong here: the voice is just as important as any instrument, and is truly the only “natural” one. Yet, when you have a group that has dedicated itself to preserving ancient beats via percussion-led rhythms, there is something transcendental in what is produced.
Mecca Bodega displayed the highest form of this ceremony tonight. These guys have truly devoted their lives to music, regardless of any commercial success they might receive. In true aesthetic fashion, these holy wanderers have been seen in just about every New York City subway station, lighting up the day of thousands of daily commuters.
Playing tracks from a feature which HBO filmed, Mecca Bodega, consisting of any and every instrument (just shy of the kitchen sink, which I might add, I’ve heard they’ve used in some of their shows), was on fire, laying down track after track of pure auditory bliss. Their tempo was upbeat, the mood overwhelmingly positive and, most importantly, they played as one entity, flawless in their music.
If you have an opportunity to see these guys or just happen to come across them on a street corner downtown, check it out. Their almost totally instrumental set (there is some singing, which is very well placed and on target) will delight the ears of the biggest skeptics and will definitely hit a nerve deep in every hidden dancer’s soul. So while you won’t hear Celine Dion singing titanic corporate money-making singles, you will hear something pure and good which exists in the eternal human condition: great music.