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Maga BoBass By Place
Singing in Swahili and blowing into car muffler parts on the Msimbati Peninsula? Has Bo Anderson left any musical stone unturned? Spannered travels to Rio de Janeiro to meet the bringer of transnational bass
By Al Fresco
Imagine, if you can, a gigantic ghettoblaster stuck between stations, blasting out a skewed hybrid of Om Kalthoum and Bounty Killer in the middle of in Rio de Janeiro's Uruguaiana market. Well, that’s the sound of Maga Bo, aka Bo Anderson — DJ, producer, sound recordist and, for the past seven and a half years, resident of Brazil's most famous city.
Fresh out on DJ /rupture's ever-on-point Soot imprint, Bo's debut mix CD, Confusion of Tongues, blazes its way across continents, shoehorning together Brazilian beatboxing, bhangra-laced breakcore, a splattering of gypsy beats and stacks of Maga-related dubplate culture clashes. Like label-mate Filastine, with whom he forms Sonar Calibrado Sound System, Bo’s musical palette mirrors his extensive travels; whether recording city streets in India, acappellas in Africa, or seeking out funk proibidão in Rio’s market stalls, his thirst for new music ensures little slips under the radar.
Since making his home in Rio de Janeiro at the end of the nineties, Bo has become fully immersed in the music of Latin America's largest country, playing samba in Rio's blocos, collaborating with the likes of Marcelo Yuka, B Negão and Mr Catra, and mapping out Brazil's musical topography through his Sambacana webcasts. His collaborations also extend as far as Morocco, Senegal, South Africa and Portugal — elements of which characterise two new EPs out on Soot to compliment his Confusion of Tongues mix. Bo has also released music through Tru Thoughts, WordSound and Post World Industries, engineered audio for various film projects, and regularly mixed for online radio shows around the world (a recent example of which can be found here).
Ahead of his sprawling European tour, Spannered called in at Bo's rooftop base near Ipanema to find out more about rewiring world sound, understanding samba, and life in the big, beautiful and dangerous city of Rio.
I have to ask… where does Maga come from?
A lot of helicopters out tonight… Is this a regular occurrence?
Maga means skinny or slim, in Jamaican patois – and I’m skinny, so…Tell us a bit about your background.
Well, I was born in Seattle, lived in Seattle for most of my life … I did a lot of travelling throughout my whole life, but I left Seattle in 1998 and went to India and Sri Lanka for nine months; and then during that time I decided that I wanted to go to Brazil and check it out and that if I liked it I’d stay. So, I finished that trip in India and then came here to Rio, liked it, and here I am still — it’s been seven and a half years.What drew you to Brazil?
I started working with some Brazilian musicians in Seattle, in 1995 or somewhere around there. There’s a small Brazilian community there of musicians, and I met this guy Jovino Santos Neto who was the piano player for Hermeto Pascoal and he now lives in Seattle; and I met Jeff Busch, and Eduardo Mendonça and another guy called Tom Armstrong — and those guys were pretty much the Brazilian music community in Seattle. They asked me to play in a batucada and I was like ‘well, I don’t really know anything about samba or anything, but I’m a percussionist’, so I was like, ‘yeah, sure okay’, and they said ‘we’ll teach you’. So I started learning to play all the different drums in the batucada …
I’d known that I really needed to move away from Seattle for a really long time; I couldn’t deal with the rain and the dark skies – it just gets depressing. For a long time I knew that I wanted to live in some place with a tropical climate on the ocean, with mountains and a big city and a good music scene and with a fairly liberal culture, and somewhere where I felt comfortable and at home… and I found basically all of that in Rio.So you’d followed Brazilian music before you came here?
Yeah, I started playing samba and just learning about it, learning how it all kind of fit together. But as much as I studied it and I listened to it, I didn’t understand it for a really long time — until I actually moved to Brazil and started playing in the blocos; every year I play in carnaval – and the first couple of years I would just play in every single bloco that I could possibly find and I’d spend the entire carnaval just playing samba. It took two or three years before it got burned into my skull and ingrained in me, and I learned how all the different parts — the polyrhythms — fit together.Your Sambacana shows hosted on the Brazil Network site give great insight into Brazilian music old and new. How did that series of shows come about? Are you still doing them?
Well, it’s kind of on a hiatus at the moment. I just wanted to put together Brazilian music and put it together in a way I’d never found it. I mean, other than maybe David Byrne’s compilations… maybe people will diss David Byrne for that, but man — you listened to my mixes, I listened to David Byrne’s compilations. Those compilations are great — some of the classic stuff; and aside from that there weren’t many things that were really available in 1995 or whatever to find Brazilian music, unless you came to Brazil or knew Brazilian people. Because I played in the batucada, there was a guy who made cassettes for everybody in the group; and I have no idea where he got this stuff – if I could get my hands on that again… It was all straight Rio samba, escola de samba stuff, and I would listen to that over and over and over and over and over again…So, you learnt a lot about the geography of Brazilian music through the process of putting these shows together?
I just wanted to put stuff together that I liked; and also I put stuff in there that I don’t like too, just because it’s part of the Brazilian music geography, and so it makes sense to stick it in there.
Yeah, totally; and these shows, for me, they’re more like selections, kind of compilations, as opposed to being mixes — because they’re not really mixed, they overlap for a few seconds and that’s about it.[Deafening sound of military helicopters passing overhead]
A lot of helicopters out tonight… Is this a regular occurrence?
No, not at all — it’s actually extremely abnormal. It’s really kind of spooky. Military police helicopters in Rio are not a very friendly sight.You mention on your blog about Rio Body Count. How do you think it is that Rio can maintain such a high profile for fashion and tourism when the statistics match that of a war zone?
Well, basically I think the Rio government and the Rio tourist industry and those who have a monetary interest in keeping the South Zone of Rio relatively ‘safe’, are really powerful and they have made it like that. It’s in their best interests to make it that people can come to Rio for the 2007 South American Pan — or whatever the hell it’s called — Games that’s happening here in a few months... Events like that, and for carnaval and for New Year’s Eve, and for the European holidays, and all those sorts of things…
There’s a long history of basically kicking poor people out of the South Zone and the centre of Rio to make it an attractive place for people with money — whether they be Brazilians or tourists — and those people essentially get sent to places like Cidade de Deus, where it’s basically like a systematic forced migration of people. There’s another place, Catacumba hill here in Lagoa, which used to be a big favela, and they raised the entire thing, moved everybody out of there and sent them to the West Zone, and burnt down or knocked down all of the houses there. So it’s not anything new – it’s been going on for a long time. There was another one on this side of Vidigal – Rocinha…Obviously none of this gets mentioned in any tourist guidebook…
No, not at all. Rio is a dangerous place, there’s no doubt about it — anything can happen, anywhere at any time … so I guess that when tourists come and find out about that, and they’re ‘oh wow, it’s a dangerous place and there are lots of murders there, and assaults and robberies…’, they kind of freak out. It’s a little bit difficult to even imagine and understand really how it is until you actually get here — because from where we’re sitting here now, right here this second, five minutes away there’s a hill where there are guys with machine guns, and they’ll shoot at police in a flash, no hesitation. We can walk there in five minutes, and it’s like a war zone right there. People get murdered and die right there; it’s not an uncommon thing. So, that’s kind of a mindfuck really, that we can be sitting here, totally tranquil, mellow, peaceful surroundings, and that happening right there and it’s side by side. And even here, this favela five minutes away, in comparison to what you’ll find in the North Zone or the West Zone of Rio, it’s really pretty mild. Where a lot of the really bad shit is going on it’s so far away, and so far away from the eye of the media and from the press and from anything else, that people hardly know what’s going on — and there the violence and that kind of system of corruption and drug trafficking and all of that has become really normal.Something that’s been a ray of light in all of this is AfroReggae. How did you come across them and what’s been your involvement with them?
I think I heard about them in the same way that a lot of other people did — through their most well-known international touring band, because I’m a DJ and I’m interested in music. And then I found out they did percussion classes and that they taught young kids how to play samba reggae using paint cans and plastic jars and things like that, which was really cool to me. Then I found out more about it, and throughout my time living in Brazil I found out more about the culture and the tradition of the samba school, to which AfroReggae is very much connected. And they’re not only about music – they teach basketball, they teach hip hop, they teach DJing, they teach IT; they teach all different kinds of stuff, and they’re expanding and growing. Then of course I saw Favela Rising… It’s a pretty inspirational thing that they’ve got going on there, and it’s totally just them wanting to make their lives better — it’s not about some gringo white guy like me coming in and saying ‘hey, let’s build a school’ or whatever; it’s totally their own initiative and that’s one of the coolest things about it.Haven’t they asked for your help with a project to build a studio?
Well, I’d been wanting to get involved more somehow with my community on a level of being able to convey my knowledge and experience with music and music business and with engineering and sound. So, I met Damian Platt…From Amnesty International?
Yes, he was with Amnesty then he got hired and started working with AfroReggae. I’d started doing some radio stuff with Marcelo Yuka, and I did that for about a year and it didn’t turn into the catalyst for having interaction with the community on a greater level than just one on one — meaning making friends basically; I wanted it to be a little more of an interaction with a focus. And so I met him [Damian Platt] and then I found about the AfroReggae Digital thing, the radio station that they’re doing; at that point when I meet him they were first getting that set up and they just had the idea of setting up a studio — and that was an idea that I had for a really long time; I wanted to somehow set up a studio or work with people who were setting up a studio.Moving away from Brazil for a bit, you’ve travelled a lot — where exactly have you been?
And actually I should mention that I met Aniruddha, who’s otherwise know as Dr Das, who was the former bass player for Asian Dub Foundation. I met him here in Brazil almost seven years ago. Asian Dub Foundation was here doing a tour in Brazil and they had met with AfroReggae in Vigário Geral; and rumour had it — or someone told me — that someone had brought an MPC here and brought it to Vigário Geral, and they were doing workshops with MPC. I’ve never actually worked with an MPC — I know a lot of people that use them, and they’re really big in hip hop, and also in the funk as well, but back then it wasn’t so common really. So they were sort of taking the hip hop mentality of the MPC and bringing it here, mixing it with the whole baile funk thing; and what Aniruddha told me is that they wanted to bring that electronic element of things into funk and samba and all of that, and see what people would do with it — and for people to learn how to use these things. I thought that was really neat, like ‘wow, what a cool way to interact with people and connect with people’; because to me that is what it’s all about — communicating with people — and that involves self-expression and being truthful, which is an extremely powerful thing. Truth, self-expression and creativity are some of the most powerful weapons that exist.
Often times, people who are the victims of racism, classism, sexism or any other sort of oppression feel powerless and basically invisible. Passing on knowledge, positivity and giving value to cultural expression is an incredibly strong form of validation and empowerment.
So it’s been something that I’ve been wanting to do for a really long time, but just didn’t have the resources and — I don’t know — infrastructure within my own life, the city and people I knew to make it actually happen. Everything happens at the right time and for the right reason, and I think now it’s finally happening.
My first big trip alone and to a very distant place was when I had an exchange — I went to Denmark when I was 15 years old. After that, when I was 18 I graduated from high school and went straight to Jamaica — I’d always wanted to go there. I went back to Jamaica another time. I lived in Europe, in Vienna for a year. I hitchhiked all over Europe. I went to Egypt at that time, then I graduated from college, did a lot of hitchhiking around the United States – a lot of hitchhiking; I loved to hitchhike actually. Then I ended up travelling from Cairo to Cape Town, basically hitchhiking on backs of trucks, buses and trains and bicycles and cars and taxis and camels and fucking horses and donkeys and sailboats and ferries and walking… and whatever it took, basically, from Cairo to Cape Town; and then went back up to Nairobi – I spent a year and a half doing that. I spent nine months circumnavigating India and Sri Lanka, recording ambient sound and making music. Actually, in Africa I did a lot of recording as well, on that first trip.
Then I came to Brazil, and I started settling down, so to speak, a little bit more; my trips had become a bit more work oriented – I’m a sound recordist, so I do recordings for documentary films. So in the last five or six years I’ve spent time in lots of places around Brazil, went back to India, Morocco, Senegal, Mozambique, South Africa about three or four times, Zanzibar, Tanzania, Guyana, been to Europe a whole bunch of times, the States… I haven’t been to Japan yet.
Is that on your list?
Yeah, I want to go to Japan. I’d really like to go back to Ethiopia and Sudan, to work on music.Probably a difficult question to answer, but in your travels what have been perhaps the most unlikely or surprising finds you’ve come across?
That’s a good question… That’s a really hard question! The first thing that comes into my head actually is when I was on my Cairo to Cape Town trip. I was travelling from Tanzania to Mozambique and, at the time  Mozambique had just gotten out of the civil war, and so basically the whole country was completely in shambles; all the bridges were blown up, there was no infrastructure, and to go from Tanzania to Mozambique there were no ferries, no regular transport services, no bridges… There’s a river that divides Tanzania and Mozambique — and so I got down to the Msimbati Peninsula, which actually has a curious story in itself…
There was this — I think he was German — guy, maybe 60 or 70 years ago, who moved there and proclaimed himself the sultan of that peninsula, and that that was an autonomous zone and it was his and he was the sultan; and he built himself a castle, and lived there for a long time until finally — I guess it must have been in the Second World War — the German’s got rid of him, or whatever.
So anyway, I ended up going there and there were these guys who were trying to refurbish this castle, which had totally fallen into disuse. So I met these guys — one was Tanzanian, the other one was English – because I was stuck in this little town. This was the place where you go to get a dhow from there to Mozambique, so I waited for three or four days until someone showed up there… While I was waiting there I met these kids — a group of, like, 15 year olds who had no parents and they lived in the house together – and they’d play music every night using old car parts, like rusted muffler pipes, old farming hoes and random pieces of metal and little bottles and stuff; and every night they would make a fire and eat their dinner and then play music, until they all fell asleep. I thought that was really cool.Something Timeblind said was that after he’d been travelling in India for six months, when he got back to his home, electronic music sounded really ‘ill’. Is that anything you can relate to?
I don't really get what he meant — or I’ve never had that experience, I should say.I guess being here is probably quite different to going back to Berlin, or wherever he was in the States…
There is definitely a thing called culture shock — that totally exists, and I think I’ve experienced it; I think we all experience it in our own ways at some point or another — maybe if we travel or have highly contrasting experiences — but the more I travel the more I feel at home in almost any part of the world. I feel pretty much as comfortable being on the Msimbati Peninsula, hanging out with some 15 year olds who are playing random music and singing in Swahili and blowing in their car muffler parts as standing on the street corner in Times Square, looking at all the lights, or listening to some guy playing his portable stereo while he’s making hotdogs at his stand there or whatever. It’s all the same; it’s all just different neighbourhoods now, somehow.You do a lot of recording all over the world. Like your collaborator Filastine, you use a lot of technology to be able to interact with people, to record things, to create new music on your travels. At times does the use of such technology feel at odds with your situations or surroundings?
There were definitely times when it did, but that’s changed… it’s been an evolving process. It also has to do with me being more comfortable with it. What I was just saying, that I feel like I’m just going into different neighbourhoods, and I’m the same person everywhere I am — I don’t become a different person if I’m in New York, Dakar or whatever; I’m still doing the same thing. I think also, with the passage of time, obviously technology has totally spread all over the world — everybody’s seen a computer; there are very few places in the world where you can go where there are no cell phones or computers or things like that. I don’t think people are really frightened by that anymore — and I’m not frightened by having that in the equation.On a technology point, the internet has obvious made cross-pollination of music easier to achieve. People have got access to music all over the place; someone can take something and have no idea about the context in which it was made, maybe even a sacred bit of music… Surely this can be culturally damaging or unempowering to the original source?
It’s just a tool that I use, really, more than anything, but at the same time, yes I do feel at odds with it because I need a computer to make my art, and I if don’t have a computer then I can’t make my art the way I make it; and while I am a percussionist, I’m not a master percussionist — by any stretch of the imagination — but I work with people who are master musicians, and wherever they happen to be; they’re highly talented at what they do, and they don’t need a computer to do what they do. So in that sense, yes, sometimes I do feel at odds, but I think one of the things that’s really cool is that with the spread of technology and the evolution of this whole thing a lot of those master musicians — who totally don’t need a computer to do what they do — they are beginning to interface with that kind of technology and recognise the level of the art that computers can be taken to. And with people like that it’s much easier to interface with them and to collaborate with them, to create with them and make something new.
If I understand what you’re asking me, you’re asking me about how I feel about using samples.Yes, I mean, there is no written rule to how you should use stuff…
Yeah, and I don’t have any written rule, any hard and fast rule for myself — and I totally use samples. I love samples; samples are a fabulous thing — but I think there’s a way to do it respectfully and there’s a way to do it ignorantly, and I try to do my sampling and my collaborating in a respectful way, and that’s totally not a quantifiable thing. I think it even comes down to a person-to-person situation; it’s a totally subjective thing. Anybody could travel to the other side of the world, wherever that happens to be, and go and collaborate with musicians — and they can do it in a respectful way and they can do it in a totally fucked-up, asshole way too. I can go to the other side of the world and I can pay some guy $5,000 to basically record a record for me, and ‘boom’, he’ll probably do it; that could be in America or that could be in Madagascar, it doesn’t really matter — if you’ve got the money then you can make that happen.
One of my hobbies or pastimes is to record call to prayer in Islamic places. I’ve spent a lot of time in Islamic countries and when I was in college studying ethnomusicology I studied Sufi music and Arabic music; I’ve always been attracted to that sound and culture and language and history, and I find it fascinating and beautiful … I’m really attracted to it — so I like to make recordings of call to prayer; but there’s no way I would ever, ever, ever use the call to prayer in one of my songs — it’s blasphemous.
That’s just one small example — I think that’s a respectful way of going about it; maybe there are some people that don’t know that… One of the things for example in baile funk people like, people will just sample anything and everything and just throw it in there and play around with it and whatever comes out comes out. Yeah, I can see that — I think that’s pretty neat too; obviously a lot of shit’s going to come out of it, and a lot of good stuff too, and everything in between… That’s got its place and that’s going to happen, and everybody’s going to do that in every single culture, and some guy is going to sample the call to prayer – and who knows, maybe he’s going to twist it around and throw it through the digital processes and it’s going to come out being something that nobody can even recognise, not even the fundamentalist Muslims, and then it’s going to come all the way back and end up in — who knows — Damascus, in some pop song, and nobody’s even gonna know it, maybe. But my approach is that I want to inform myself and learn about what it is that I’m working with — not necessarily everybody has to do that, but that’s my approach.You studied Sufi music for some time, specifically concentrating on North Africa. Sufi music is a massive area both geographically and theologically — why did you focus on that area in particular?
As I said, I lived in Vienna for a year, and during that year studying German, on one of my breaks I went to Egypt for three weeks or something. I spent most of the time in Cairo and that was when I got exposed to Arabic music and culture and language and sounds. I bought a lot of cassettes there at the time; most of them I have no idea what they are — they’re all in written Arabic. Some of the were recitation of the Koran, which is actually something that I love to listen to even to this day; I don’t understand any of it — a few words here and there and that’s it — I just like the sound of it. I was attracted to the use of music to attain spiritual enlightenment and closeness to god, basically. So I interpreted that in my own way of course, like anybody would… Just the sound of it… I researched it and started finding examples of it in things in the musical library there, listening to things, and that was the sound that was really attractive to me.Are there any particular time periods that captivated your interest more?
Om Kalthoum and the Egyptian orchestra sound — I just love that stuff. I think it’s kind of like a lot of people have a fascination with the 70s kind of funk soul sound — and I do too; I love that rich, analogue production that happened — and that sort of thing was happening in Egypt with the recordings of these orchestras.You mention about not being able to understand what’s being said but enjoying the sonic qualities. You play music from all over the world — there’s no way you can understand what’s being said in some of the music you’re playing…
True. But I try to get at the very least the gist of what’s going on — and that’s not so hard, really, to get the gist of what people are talking about. You can look on MySpace and you can look on the internet, and you can look up specific songs, get lyrics on things. And so for the most part I try and do that. At the same time, if there’s a track that’s talking about big butts and getting down and shaking it, and this and that and whatever else… if I really like the track, man, I’ll play it. There’s a time and a place for that — I’m not pure about really anything [laughs]. I don’t have a religious agenda on things — I just want to be respectful.This feeds back into the mix you’ve done for DJ /rupture’s label, Confusion of Tongues. Presumably you’re using a lot of stuff from different language, but do they all have a sort of common sonic imprint? Is there a thread?
To begin with I guess they’re all things that I like; all the tracks or sounds or whatever on the record are parts of my sonic universe. It’s just my way of connecting all of the dots in between — and I think there are a lot of different ways that things can be connected: by tempo, by pitch, by subject matter, by rhythm, by timbre… All of these are different ways to connect one thing with another. Language is much more of a complex thing that just a rhythm, for example.The mix album is to be accompanied by a couple of twelves. Does that material have a geographic dispersal as well?
Most of the stuff on there… I like raw sounds; I like raw, dirty, kind of urban types of sounds. Maybe there are some sounds on there — I can’t think of any specific examples — that might not necessarily be considered as being ‘urban’ sounds, but I heard them in an urban place. When I travel, I love cities; I like to be in cities. As much as I like nature, when I’m in nature I don’t really want to hear music [laughs]. Music is a pretty urban thing for me. I think it’s [Confusion of Tongues] the sound of urban cities around the world.
Actually I think one of the big influences on how I go about DJing and making music and doing all these things is from my trip in Africa, when I travelled from Cairo to Cape Town. By travelling by land, and small distances every day, you’ll see and experience all of the connections with culture and language and food and music and custom and facial features and skin colour and hair colour and, you know, the way of living, really. We’re all connected; you could go from the very northern most point of Norway all the way down by land through Europe, through Turkey and Syria and whatever, all the way to Cape Town, and there’s a thread that goes all the way down there. And from the tip of Cape Town you could go all the way to Siberia, and there will be small connections between all these different places, and all the people along the way will connect with each other and have similarities. I think that just blew my mind — and that’s kind of how my music comes out somehow as well.
Yeah, but it’s not quite so wide ranging. The first one is more the Moroccan record, so there’s a track with K-Libre, which is a group from Morocco, and then the other side there’s a track with a guy called Bigg, who’s from Casablanca — and there’s a Dr Das remix and then that one’s got the instrumental on it. The second one, the instrumental was done in Senegal and then the rap on it from K-Libre — the same guys that are on the first twelve — and then the other side has Xuman from Pee Froiss.And do you have other production work coming out?
I did a track with a guy named Teba in Cape Town for a label called Nanny Tango. A guy named Alan Gubby — who was an artist on Tru Thoughts — he basically licensed a whole load of stuff from Melt 2000, which is this label in South Africa, and basically asked a bunch of people that he liked to do remixes. So I ended up with this one track, which was basically the last track left… It’s kinda funny because this track is a spiritual healing track from South Africa — it’s just a stereo recording — and he had no idea of what it’s about or what they’re saying or even what language it’s in. I was like, ‘hmm, that’s strange’ and I asked him to get me some more information on that. I’d done a little bit of recording with a guy called Pops Mohamed who was one of the artists on Melt 2000 — a South African percussionist, composer and musician who’s been doing a lot of stuff in South Africa for a long time. I sent it to him and he didn’t know what language it was even. We tried to get in touch with the Melt 2000 people and they didn’t know, and then I went to South Africa and I played it for a whole bunch of people and no one knew what language it was; all we could know was that it was the name of a guy - you listen to it and all’s totally repetitive, so it seems like it’s been in homage of some guy. I ended up just turning it more into like a sample of that track — a totally new track with a sample of that. So that’s coming out; it’s called Vibrations from the Motherland, I think — a CD compilation, and then that’s coming out on a seven-inch as well.And shortly you’re off to Europe…
Yeah, June and July.What’s planned?
Lots of gigs, lots of travelling, lots of countries — Holland, the Clandestino festival in Sweden, Germany, Austria, Spain, Portugal, UK, Belgium maybe…Finally, performance-wise, as you mix such a diversity of styles and tempos, how do you manage to maintain fluidity and cohesion?
Generally I have a theme in mind, and sometimes it’s more obvious — like I’ll play just Brazilian music, or I’ll play more party-orientated music, or I’ll play more experimental stuff; in my mind it’s got a kind of direction or a theme to it. My favourite things to do are experimental, noisy, kind of crazy stuff rather than ‘keeping the dancefloor packed’ sort of thing — and my favourite is when people dance to the totally crazy, weird, experimental shit… that’s the best of all. A lot of the time it depends on the party, the venue or the theme as to what I’ll play — and who I’m also playing with — but generally speaking I like to play stuff with conscious lyrics that’s a little more challenging listening, and not quite so obvious.Maga Bo's Confusion of Tongues mix CD and EP 1 are out now on Soot Records
You can listen to Maga Bo's recent mix for Poland's Radio Luz here
You can listen to Bo's 45-track global hop hop mix for the World Up project here