Monday, March 07, 2005

We are the Whirled- the spin on "world music"

As the World Music awards are presented in England, Telegraph writer Mark Hudson rightfully wonders What on earth is happening to world music? All manner of question of culture and imperialism can get swirled around here but the heart of the matter is a worthwhile point to ponder: what actually is 'world music' and who determines what it is?

As Hudson explains, the crux of what we consider 'world music' falls into a marketing term that we are in the West cultivate. Obviously, what we lump into this category had existed long before it was on our radar. The States was a hotbed for this as immigrants carried over folk ballads and Church hymns from England or gypsy songs from Eastern Europe or classical suites from all over the continent. Even though Bach and Beethoven were both German, we hardly consider their works to be "world music."

"World music" would seem to actually cover music from the Third World. As such, Cuban music had made a mark in jazz during the 1940's and Nigerian drummer Babatunde Olatunji had a hit record in the 1950's. Then there were scattered hits and breaches into Western consciousness by artists like Mariam Makeba, Hugh Masekela, Manu Dibango, King Sunny Ade, Fela Kuti (and later, Youssou N'Dour, Salif Keita). But it became an official movement around 1986 with the release of Paul Simon's Graceland. It wasn't just the South African music that he embraced (and according to guitarist Ray Phiri, ripped off) but also the music of the whole continent that became a fresh source of exploration for Western ears. All Music Guide speculates that when a certain style (Latin pop, reggae) grows enough in and of itself, it gains its own moniker outside of "world music" but I'd say instead that the popularity of these styles predate the term "world music" so that they earned their own section in a record shop as such.

As many artists now had more of a commercial outlet and a greater potential audience, this was an obvious boon. Imagine that many of these people had trouble finding places to play in their own countries (many times, it just didn't exist) and were now able to mount tours across America and Europe. Unfortunately, in our post-9/11 world, the American government has decided to get stingy with giving out travel visas, even to long-time musicians, meaning in some cases that award-winning artists couldn't even come here. An Arabic promoter lamented "How could I now get visas for a 10 piece band from Egypt to fly over to the States and play? They won't let a large group like that in."

Even if the U.S. State department doesn't see cultural exchange as an important form of diplomacy, the opportunity is potentially there for these 'world' musicians in the West nevertheless. Hudson's argument boils down to the old theory about 'gate-keepers': editors and writers decide about which small fraction of the 1000's of releases come out each year we get to hear about. This applies to not just 'world music' but also any other style, be it rap, rock, country, blues, jazz, classical, etc.. Some artists will have advantages with previous track records and recognition while other newer artists will have the advantage of good marketing campaigns by their record company.

The problem for world music artists (no need for quotes anymore, right?) is that they often don't have the opportunities that their Western counterparts do. Even though there are stalwart labels like Sterns or Shanachie (or Original Music, RIP) to chronicle these acts, many of them won't get on these labels' radar. Media in their countries is not the same in the States or Western Europe where micro-trends make their way to their mainstream press sometimes as quickly as they reach the underground/indie press. Economics also make it difficult to sustain a musical career- in the States, you can hold down a white or blue collar job and do music on the side for years but such luxuries are not prevalent in Africa. For these reasons, the gate-keeper model is much more important for this music because it determines not just how can sustain a music career but also who can or will be playing music at all.

What usually happens then is the tourist effect. Just as merchandising industries pop up around the Eiffel Tower or Statue of Liberty or Big Ben or Mount Rushmore to give visitors some memento or taste of local culture, the same happens with music in Third World countries. Visitors come expecting to hear 'authentic, local indigenous music' and there will be people there to provide it. Whether the music is actually what's being enjoyed otherwise by local residents is another question. It comes down to a strange, removed cycle where the local musicians try to play what they perceive to be the music that visitors think is local music. It would be like tourists coming to the Lower East Side of New York expecting to hear 70's punk groups or Seattle visitors looking for grunge. Sure enough, even in those instances, there will be musicians to comply with the demand.

But then, what choices do we have about what gets supported and sustained in the universe of world music? We're much better off having the world music gate-keepers exist because they do help us learn about a lot of music we probably wouldn't otherwise but by the same token, we shouldn't leave it at that. Luckily, there's this thing called the Internet that provides additional and alternative ways to hear more about music. Complaining about a problem is easy but trying to do something about it is much better if you truly care about the situation. So, I'd like to offer a few online resources for anyone who's curious to hear more about world music than they've been able to elsewhere:

- World Music Institute
- Fly- Global Music Culture magazine
- Stern's Music- record label
- World Music Charts Europe
- Benn Luxo Du Taccu- Mp3 blog
- Songlines Magazine
- World Music at Rootsworld
- FRoots Magazine

And here's a group of useful world music MP3 blogs, courtesy of Matthew Perpetua of Fluxblog:

- Fruits of Chaos - all contemporary Asian pop
- Akwaaba Sound System - more African music
- Red Lotus Radio - miscellaneous international music
- Tikun Olam - misc folk and world music

MP goes on to say: "In a lot of ways, mp3 blogs are one of the best things to happen to "world music' in ages, since it allows easy access to a broad range of rare material that western labels might not touch/be able to market and thus keep out of the western dialogue entirely. Bloggers can present the music along with context, which is often necessary. It's a better format than radio in than respect and it isn't anonymous and context-less like most p2p experiences."

(Savor that last line- it's worth a blog entry in and of itself)

I'm sure I forgot plenty of other resources. If you know of any, please post the information in the comments section here so it can be shared with the online world. In the meantime, seek and ye shall find world music.


Blogger Richard said...

Thanks very much for the link to my world/folk mp3 blog and for your interesting post on the subject.

4:24 AM  

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