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volume 7
september 2004

Locating Louis Simão in the Toronto Latin Music community


  A dialogic ethnography
by Andrew Scott [1]
  Like other urban concentrations all over the world, Ontario hosts an active Latin Music scene. In this setting, authenticity clearly is at play. However, just as their audiences, the artists involved don't seem to care much for what constitutes "authentic" Latin music or "authentic" Latin performances. Instead they are pushing the boundaries by focusing on the intertextuality of the music and the sonic gesture of the performance. In an ethnographic dialog with musicians like Louis Simão, David French and Rich Greenspoon, Andrew Scott looks deeper into this matter.
1 Left: Louis Simão

Placing Latin in Toronto. On most Wednesday nights during the summer of 2003, The Habitat club, which occupies the highly contested space of the former Future Bakery at the corner of Queen and Palmerston streets in Toronto, plays host to Dedelo. [2] Led by British Columbia born, Toronto-based saxophonist David French, Dedelo features multi-instrumentalist Louis Simão on vocals and nylon string guitar and Rich Greenspoon on drums and percussion. The group, which performs Brazilian folkloric music with lyrics in Portuguese, is one of a handful of aggregations in the Toronto Latin Music scene that features Simão. In this paper, I explore Simão's "place" in this rapidly changing and increasingly compartmentalized musical community. Through ethnography, interview and informal conversation, I have learned Simão positions himself a simultaneous insider and outsider to this musical scene. [3] While his enormous talent on multiple instruments, familiarity with Axe, Samba, Salsa, Meringue and Fado rhythms, Portuguese fluency and swarthy good looks enable Simão to ingratiate himself easily into the burgeoning Toronto Diaspora of South and Central American musicians, Simão is a first-generation Canadian; born in Brampton to parents who immigrated to Ontario as two of the 63,145 registered Portuguese between the years 1953 and 1971 (Higgs, 1982: 2).

Simão grew up surrounded by music. He heard Fado — the urban music of Lisbon — and the Portuguese folk songs that his grandmother sang in the house, added to the Brazilian music from his parents record collection and he learned the accordion, with which he accompanied Portuguese dancing at the "Portuguese Canadian Democratic Community Centre" in Toronto. Concurrently, Simão enjoyed Rush and Black Sabbath. "At about age ten," he recalls, "I had a mandolin at home and I wished it was a guitar." Simão soon discovered Jazz. He enrolled as a performance major at York University, where he studied with Don Thompson, Mark Eisenman and John Gittens. Now thirty years of age, Simão draws on a "musical genealogy that confounds the stability of conventional categorizations of music," as Robert Walser (1992) once argued about guitarist Yngwie J. Malmsteen. An accomplished musician, Simão embraces his multi-sited musical past, moving comfortably within any number of musical traditions on multiple instruments. Presently, Simão is working on a record of his own. [4] And it is in the recording studio that Simão has been forced to confront the many disparate influences so germane to his musical development.
As much as the attempt to "locate" Louis Simão, as suggested by this paper's title, is my academic quest, self-locating is also Simão's pursuit. Cognizant that his musical choices reflect competing claims to "authenticity" while contesting the cultural and musical legacies of the influences he so skillfully negotiates, Simão simply wants to make an "honest" record. How then does a Portuguese-Canadian from Brampton make an "honest" record that reflects a Jazz, Fado, Brazilian, folkloric, African, Rock'n'Roll aesthetic, features drum kit, accordion, electric guitar, electric bass, Fender Rhodes, bagpipes, handheld percussion, acoustic guitar, Portuguese lyrics and Jazz saxophone while successfully adhering to the "World Music" rubric as dictated by the Canadian-government approved SOCAN recording grant that is helping finance Simão's album? [5] Further, how is the confrontation between these proxies — one musical and one cultural — made manifest in Simão's role as side musician in such Toronto area Latin groups as Ritmo Azul, Eliana Cuevas, Luis Mario Ochoa and Cimmaron, Daniel Stone and Cache and even Nelly Furtado, with whom Simão recently recorded on accordion. I confront these questions here.
Methodologically, this paper is a dialogic ethnography. My work benefits from three formal interviews with Simão, one opportunity to attend a recording session for his current project and countless experiences sharing the stage and performing music with Simão. [6] The "dialogical" distinction I give to my paper's rather grim sounding title reflects an awareness of the critical writings of Clifford (1988), Marcus (1986; 1998), Geertz (1988a; 1988b) and Hymes (1962; 1964; 2001) that has deflated problematic assumptions of ethnographic authority, influencing scholars to rethink the ethnographies they both read and write. As a result, my goal is to treat Simão not as an "independent enunciator," but as an authoritative co-writer whose personal agency shapes this final text (Clifford, 1988: 51).
2 Right: Memo Acevedo

Memo Acevedo and the Toronto Latin Music community, 1980-1995. The music of percussionist/composer Memo Acevedo offered an easy and early conduit into Latin Music for Toronto audiences. Originally from Colombia, Acevedo immigrated to Toronto in the 1970's where, as he told Tito Puente in a December 1977 meeting, he introduced Toronto to Salsa music that previous June (Acevedo, 2003). Acevedo was determined to establish a Latin Music presence in Toronto. He formed the Latin music ensemble at Humber College of Applied Arts and Technology, hosted "The Latin Beat" radio show on CIUT-FM and performed on the Canadian Jazz circuit of clubs and festivals with his two groups: Banda Brava and Memo Acevedo and The Jazz Cartel. Although Acevedo won a 1991 Juno Award in the World Music category, he arguably reached his largest audience through his 1989 Rubbermaid commercial "Unbeatable." Acevedo relished his role as Toronto's Latin Music ambassador. Shortly after arriving, Acevedo began bringing such artists as the Trio de Paz, Egberto Gismonti, Tito Puente and Hermeto Pascoal to Toronto for concerts at Berlin, the Top of the Senator and the Humber College Auditorium. Acevedo as concert impresario would introduce each evening with an impassioned talk, thanking the, often small, audience for supporting live music, this music, Latin Music.

Arguably, there was less awareness about Latin Music in Toronto during the 1980's and early 1990's than there is today. Perhaps as a result, Acevedo's inclusive approach to Latin Music juxtaposes the highly circumscribed repertoire of many current Toronto ensembles. A typical Acevedo performance, for example, might feature Puerto Rican/New York Salsa (often called Newyorkian), Sambas, Meringues, Bossa Novas, Afro-Cuban Funk and even Acevedo's "Latinized" arrangements of Jazz standards. [7] Clearly, the compositions Acevedo choose to perform span idioms, decades and styles that for many performers today would be seen as antithetical. According to Simão, the Brazilians today: "... have a specific thing about the kind of music that they want to make. If I start talking to them about putting on a night, for example, they start to get hung up about the repertoire ... oh you know the Brazilians don't really like Bossa Nova or Samba." What about people in the Latin Music community who are not Brazilian, I ask? "For them, Latin means Spanish speaking, not Brazilian or Portuguese," Simão states definitively. Percussionist Wilson Reashore — who studied under Acevedo — elaborates: "Latin Music in Toronto is Cuban Son, Puerto Rican Salsa, Dominican Republic Meringue and Colombian stuff." [8] Interestingly, Reashore does not mention Brazilian Bossa Nova, Portuguese Fado, Spanish Flamenco or Argentinean Tango. "That stuff," he surmises, is "something different." Simão concurs. Further, he underscores this point, admitting that his initial attraction to Brazilian Bossa Nova did not result from an interest in Latin Music, but through the Jazz collaborations of Stan Getz, Charlie Byrd and João and Astrud Gilberto.
For Simão, performing Brazilian Bossa Nova was an obvious fit. The lyrics are in Portuguese, which Simão cites principally as culturally connecting him to this music, and the Bossa Nova's extended harmonies are eminently approachable as a Jazz musician. Simão's first group, Pedras da Rua, achieved success performing Bossa Nova and other Brazilian rhythmic forms at the Top of the Senator and the 2002 All-Canadian Jazz Festival in Port Hope, Ontario. [9] In both situations, the group performed before almost exclusively non-Brazilian audience. According to Simão:
  "... appealing to the broader Canadian audience was easier. Brazilians, the way that I understand it, don't want to hear the Bossa Nova. They want to hear Batukada, the Samba School, and then they want to hear Samba Reggae or Axe, the Pop [Music] that is happening now."
Returning to Acevedo, the Canadian press championed his pan-Latin identity. They commented on the "cosmopolitan [ness]" of his music, suggesting, "if Salsa is the spice of Latin American Music, then percussionist Memo Acevedo is a master chef." [10] To be fair, there are, as Juan Flores (2000a: 7) has pointed out, certain inevitabilities and strategic advantages to such pan-ethnic concepts as Latino and Hispanic. However, as these terms enter the public lexicon, cultural distinctions blur to the point where people with roots in "Mexico, Puerto Rico, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador and Colombia" are treated "as though they were all of common stock and circumstance" (Flores, 2000a: 7).
  Perhaps unhappy with the composite "Latino" label, many Toronto musical groups have drawn inward, performing music distinctly Cuban or Puerto Rican with musicians who share their cultural background and performance aesthetic. "I don't understand it," states Greenspoon. "You have all these musicians who want to get out of Cuba and come to Canada, and as soon as they get here they work with other Cubans playing Cuban music." One interpretation is to view this inward move through the lens of commerce. Not to be crude, but similar to David Ake's (2002: 84) point that financial survival in a commercially marginalized practice such as Jazz "hinges on a musician's ability to present him-or herself as an 'artist,'" I suggest that financial solvency in world music can be indexed to a musicians ability to present him/herself as authoritative. And nothing suggests musical authenticity more than belonging to the culture that begat the genre being performed. Acevedo was often the only "Latin" member of his band. Such first call Toronto musicians as Brian Dickinson, Will Jarvis, Terry Promane, Michael Stuart, Bill McBirnie, Kevin Turcotte and Dave Restivo — among others — worked in Acevedo's ensembles. Arguably, such a diverse aggregation would meet resistance in today's more culturally compartmentalized Toronto ensembles.
3 Left: Nuno Cristo

Authenticating the repertoire. Simão cares little for tightly circumscribed rules regarding who can play Latin Music and what constitutes an "authentic" Latin performance. Simão's inclusive performative approach is made manifest in repertoire choice, group membership and instrumentation. I'm reminded here of David Ake's work with standard bearing in Jazz. Ake (2002) argues that performances of a so-called standard repertoire — referring to the American songs of Tin Pan Alley, Broadway and the early picture show — are motivated as much by historical reverence as sonic choice. [11] For many Jazz musicians, performing standards implies "a statement — revealing an awareness of and reverence for a legacy handed down by the music's forbearers" (Ake, 2002: 151). Is there a similar legacy or canon in Portuguese music, I ask? Simão admits there is:

  "There are clear things [such as] fadu, where people in the Portuguese community would know how to listen to it and know when to clap. Or there are dance bands that play music that is just meant to party to."
  Simão, however, suggests that alternate sources nuance his current stylistic approach. Of note are Simão's early experiences with musician/luthier Nuno Cristo. Cristo led a folkloric group in the Portuguese area of Toronto. Consisting mainly of non-Portuguese people playing instruments not easily indexed to a Portuguese musical tradition, Cristo encouraged students to take the traditional music of Portuguese anonymous authors and reinterpret it. According to Simão: "I can't even say that I've even diverged from that concept. Like what I've done in Pedras and what I have continued to do. I've taken those songs that I learned from him [Cristo] and have tried to reharmonize them or rework them in a way that breathes different life into them." In addition to learning processes that have remained germane to Simão's musical approach, he also discovered Portuguese audiences could be dismissive towards music and/or ensemble aggregation removed from the ever-important cultural canon:
  "What I discovered when I was 17 or 18, playing with Nuno in these folk groups with non-Portuguese people with hurdy gurdies and citterns from Ireland, was that people weren't into it. That is not the music of the community. They either want to have a really traditional group or what seems to be important is singers ... the idea of the artist/singer and we have a lot of them ... really talented women, kind of in the Celine Dion vibe. My own perspective is that it is a bit removed from what is happening in Canada and Toronto ... people don't seem to know as much and I think our community is a bit insular."
Authenticity is clearly the issue here. Although defined in musicological literature as performances that "seek historical verisimilitude" largely through the use of period instruments and "period performance idioms," authenticity here is augmented to include cultural heritage. [12] Further, as Richard Dyer (1991: 133) notes, authenticity itself needs authenticating. Simply put, Simão discovered Portuguese audiences need to see more than a fellow Portuguese person on stage; they require that person to be behaving, or in this case making music, in a manner that acts out, reifies and makes meaningful their own concepts of "Portuguese(ness)." As David Pattie (1999) writes about Rock'n'Roll musicians, "it is not enough that the [Rock] star is real; he or she must "act realness." For Simão, however, cultural dictates regarding authenticity in musical performance are anything but real:
  "I'm interested in taking this thing and manipulating it and improvising and trying to create something new. This is Toronto; I mean this is the perfect place for things to not be authentic."
  I ask Simão about pragmatic concerns; that financial solvency is indexed to acceptance within a community and that authenticity perception plays a pivotal role in "shaping understandings of artistry, prestige and purpose" in musical performance (Ake, 2002: 84):
  "To be honest, I'm not interested in appealing to the Latin Music community ... I'm not holding my breath thinking that I'm going to create a thing that those communities are going to like. People who like to hear Samba or Brazilian music from Brazil, are they going to like what I do? I think I'm beyond the point of having hang-ups. Originally, I thought I had to approach this with a bit of respect ... here I am playing this music from Brazil and I'm not Brazilian and so how are people going to interpret it, but not any more."
  It is within the Jazz context that Simão feels most comfortable experimenting musically. As a result, Simão cites Jazz, and not Latin Music, as the touchstone for his current performative approach:
  "Musical performance is not a thing that is literal. [Music] has got to be open and has got to be Jazz somehow, even though a lot of people would probably say that it wasn't Jazz at all, it has to have that element, that thing in Jazz that is so heavy ... that makes that music so beautiful."
One interpretation of Simão's inclusive musical approach is to view it as signification. Signifying theories in music suggest, "when a musician performs a song, he or she not only plays a melody and a set of chord changes but also plays with and in some ways "comments" on earlier versions of that song" (Ake, 2002: 150). I nuance Ake's point to suggest that Simão is not commenting upon earlier versions of particular songs, but rather is involved in an intertextual dialogic with his past and present musical experiences. Intertextuality theories point out that different people experience texts — in this case musical texts — differently. [13] Arguing against an a priori reading of text, intertextuality disputes notions of single authorship and single interpretations of text. [14] Intertextuality suggests, (1) text interpretation is agent sensitive and dependent upon the reader's/listener's familiarity with a reference, composition, or musical quotation, (2) previous experiences with text colour perception and impact the learning, performance, and interpretation (among other facets) of a musical moment, (3) all texts are pamplisets, [15] and have a dialogical relationship with other texts, and (4) as any given text is a "new tissue of past citations," textual meaning is constituted through its relationship to other texts. [16] These manifestations of intertextuality bear significance to Simão's approach and accordingly his desire to create "honest" music means acknowledging influences that for some are seen as contradictory; sounds and influences that evidence no connection to Latin Music sources.
4 Right: Rich Greenspoon

The performances. In this section, I index Simão's comments to sonic gesture. I look specifically at the music of Sweet Dirt, Simão's current recording project with drummer/percussionist Rich Greenspoon. Although I do discuss musical parameters — such as instrumentation and repertoire — I begin this section with a critical reading of the group's personnel and name.

Sweet Dirt was named by Greenspoon's daughter in reference to the taste of radishes pulled fresh from the soil. Unlike such Toronto groups as Ritmo Azul, Cimmaron or Cache, Sweet Dirt's name has no Spanish words or obvious Latino signifiers. Further, the band — consisting at the moment of Simão, Greenspoon and David French — doesn't particularly look like a Latin band as Simão is the only member who could pass for being Hispanic. Simão locates meaning for both the group's name and personnel in Canadian sources, suggesting "as Canadians, it feels easier and the context ... much clearer." Simão argues that cultural fusions abound in Toronto. Accordingly, Simão suggests his interest in musical fusions reflects a distinctly Canadian aesthetic. French concurs with Simão: "I'm a Canadian. I moved to the largest city in Canada, which is also one of the most linguistically and culturally diverse cities in the world. Diversity is par for the course. No one is more surprised than me about the things that I have gotten involved in."

Sweet Dirt's choice of repertoire distances the group from others in the Toronto Latin Music scene. Take for example, Louis Mario Och and Cimarron's latest album La Fiesta. [17] Not only are all the lyrics in Spanish, but Cimarron's classic Salsa instrumentation, tight horn arrangements and danceable rhythmic grooves index obvious references to earlier Cuban and Puerto Rican ensembles. Similarly, the liner notes to Eliana Cuevas's current CD "Cohesion" do much to locate her performances within a Latin Music tradition. [18] Although Cuevas's CD features original material, and therefore one might assume less rigidity in terms of adhering to an overarching historical or stylistic framework, the liner notes detail the various rhythmic claves — partido alto, samba, 6/8 afro, bolero-cha, salsa and ballad — that she utilizes for her compositions. For Sweet Dirt, these aforementioned rhythms might be "the start of an influence," but as Greenspoon admits, "[the music] goes anywhere it wants."
  The classic Salsa instrumentation of horns backed by a rhythm section of piano, bass, drum kit and various handheld percussion acts as markers of genre purity for both Cimarron and Cuevas's ensemble. Both groups feature Latino musicians wearing suits, standing amongst a plethora of acoustic instruments, timbales, panderos and congas. Arguably, these visual signifiers point towards Latin Music sources. As Bruno Nettl (1995: 33) notes, "the correlation between costume and musical category is so strong that a hearing impaired person could usually identify style and category by noting whether the musicians wear tuxedos, blazers, turtlenecks, robes ... Elizabethan garb, T-shirts with holes or leather jackets".
  If a critical reading of the look and liner notes of records by Cimarron and Eliana Cuevas suggest that a pan-exoticism or sophistication is becoming the norm for Toronto Latin groups, then Sweet Dirt presents a more vernacular image of Latin Music. Sweet Dirt uses instruments from both inside and outside of the canon of Latin Music instrumentation and employs musical aesthetics reflective of wide ranging influences. Compositions on their record feature voice, acoustic and electric bass, acoustic and electric guitar, tuba, pandero, drums, a studio-manipulated backwards accordion — that Greenspoon suggests would "make the folkies tremble" — and a triple-meter African piece originally written for a bagpipe capable of playing only in Bb Melodic Minor.
5 Left: David French

Pushing the boundaries. Dialogical editing is an ethnographic practice used by Stephen Feld (1982) and Sara Cohen (1993) that aims to "extend the story of a fixed-in-print text" by engaging original subjects as readers (Feld, 1982: 240). In Cohen's work, dialogical editing is explored to the extent that she offers her final text to her two subjects, allowing them opportunity to make alterations or add a postscript. In Feld's work, dialogical editing not only challenges his ethnographic authority, but raises questions regarding his methodology and decision making processes. In this dialogical spirit, I acknowledge that my scholarly focus changed while researching this project.

Originally, I felt comfortable categorizing Simão — and accordingly Sweet Dirt — within the Toronto Latin Music community. This categorization resulted from my familiarity with Simão's musical background and the group's use of Portuguese lyrics. Since beginning my project, however, I have learned both Simão and Greenspoon eschew that label. While Simão's earlier group, Pedras da Rua, performed Portuguese folkloric songs and composed music conscious of the Bossa Nova, Marakatwo and the Bione, this project does not share similar motivations. Clearly, I have experienced first-hand Seeger's point that musical ethnographies are challenged from their initial stages, because definitions of "what we call music vary widely ... [and] if we confine ourselves to asking only about what we call music, we may be making a partial inquiry into what other people think they are doing" (Seeger, 1992: 102).

  Clifford (1986: 4) states that cultural authenticity is lost in our modern age. Not simply the destruction of culture in the colonial model — libraries burned, artifacts destroyed, local vernaculars glossed over — recent cultural loss is dialogical, a potentially problematic "meeting and merging" of disparate cultures (Soules, 2003). Numerous issues can be teased from Clifford's argument — including questions of authority, "other"(ing) and agency placement. For the ethnomusicologist / ethnographer, the issue is perhaps further nuanced. In the Malinowskian ethnographic model, cultural borders were not imagined, but physical and real (Malinowski, 1922a; 1922b). As Marcus (1998: 12) argues, "other"(ing) was a non sequitur, as the problems of ethnography were already given. There are few, if any, cultural boundaries left.
  In our increasingly globalized and homogenous world, traversable borders that separate the ethnographer from an "other" are becoming increasingly conceptualized. For Marcus (1998: 16), physical borders now exist only as a "working fiction". Ethnographers need to rethink "the research imaginary," altering the way ideas are formulated and fieldwork projects are "conceived" (Marcus, 1998: 10). One way is an inward shift of the scholarly lens, toward a discussion of local music-making on the community level. Recently, there has been a proliferation of ethnographies on local music-making. Harris Berger's investigation of the Akron, Ohio, Heavy Metal and Jazz communities (Berger, 1990a; 1990b), Sara Cohen's work with Liverpool musicians (Cohen, 1993), and Juan Flores's valuable research into the Puerto Rican Diaspora (Flores, 2000a; 2000b) represent only a few. It is in that spirit that I present my research here.
  In this paper, I have attempted to "locate" Louis Simão in Toronto's Latin Music community. After numerous rewarding discussions, pointed questions and a lengthy ethnography, I'm not sure if I'm any closer to locating him than I was at the project's outset. Rather than assign Simão to a particular genre, category or style, I suggest his music is multi-sited — Simão present in many musical locations. During our final interview, Simão connected his approach not to Canadian or Jazz sources, but to the son livre — or universal sound — movement that emerged from Brazil in the 1960's. According to Simão, "you get musicians like Caetano Veloso, who is huge in World Music now, Gilberto Gil and Tom Ze who all emerge out of a movement they call the Tropicalia movement ... based on this idea of universal sound ... like anything goes. Caetano is definitely indebted to João Gilberto and the Bossa Nova, but he was also into the Beatles. Sure he'll play some Jobim tunes, but is really trying to push the boundaries." Clearly, so is Simão.
1. Thank you Louis Simão, David French and Rich Greenspoon for the insightful interviews and for your music. Return to text
2. French's group is no longer called Dedelo. Return to text
3. Author's interview with Louis Simão, Wednesday August 13, 2003; author's interview with Louis Simão and David French, Tuesday August 19, 2003; and author's interview with Louis Simão and Rich Greenspoon, Sunday August 31, 2003. Return to text
4. I listened to a number of these not-yet-completed tracks in Silverbirch Recording Studio on Sunday August 31, 2003. Return to text
5. SOCAN is an acronym for the Society of Composers, Authors and Music Publishers of Canada. It is a government arts foundation that awards grant money for such artistic projects as recordings. Return to text
6. Author's interview with Louis Simão, Wednesday August 13, 2003; author's interview with Louis Simão and David French, Tuesday August 19, 2003; and author's interview with Louis Simão and Rich Greenspoon, Sunday August 31, 2003. Return to text
7. I saw Acevedo perform many times while he was living in Toronto. Return to text
8. Author's interview with Wilson Reashore, Thursday August 21, 2003. Return to text
9. The Top of the Senator is a Toronto Jazz club located at 249 Victoria Street. Sybil Walker, who books the Senator, also programmed the All-Canadian Jazz Festival. Return to text
10. See the press release/advertisement in Barb McCullough's Toronto Downtown Jazz Society, 9 August, 1993: "Memo Acevedo & The Jazz Cartel build bridges." Pedras da Rua performed at the All-Canadian Jazz Festival September 20-22, 2002. Return to text
11. See: Ake, 2002, especially the chapter "Jazz traditioning. Setting standards at century's close." Return to text
12. Cfr. Sherman, 1998. Return to text
13. Cfr. Kristeva, 1980: 69. Return to text
14. Cfr. Kristeva, 1980: 69; Barthes, 1981: 31-47; Barthes, 1977: 142-148. Return to text
15. Cfr. Derrida, 1978: 25. Return to text
16. Cfr. Barthes, 1981: 39. Return to text
17. A description and song samples from Luis Mario Ochoa's album "La Fiesta" (2000) can be found at the Luis Mario Website (www.luismario.com). Return to text
18. A description and song samples from Eliana Cuevas' album "Cohesion" (2002) can be found at the Eliana Cuevas Website (www.elianacuevas.com). Return to text
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  This paper was presented at the Guelph Jazz Festival 2003 Colloquium "Activating Jazz. Human rights, resistant sounds, and the politics of music-making," September 3-5, 2003 at the Macdonald Stewart Art Centre in Guelph, Ontario.
  2004 © Soundscapes