By the mid-1990’s, there was scarcely a better way to assert, not only your ‘coolness’ but also your ethical and moral credentials,than to have an at least modest collection of “world music” CD’s on your shelf. How better to show your empathy and support for musicians from exotic climes than to play their newly packaged album as your guests arrived for canapés? It felt a little distasteful at the time – looking back, it feels even more disagreeable, a middle class conceit at ‘doing their bit’ for artists who were often wildly successful in their homelands and had been for many years.
The other side of the coin is that whatever the rationale, it at least gave artists some global exposure and a nice payday. Like the extraordinary phenomenon of The Three Tenors, it may have dismayed some classical music aficionados (and indeed music snobs) that people were only listening to Nessun Dorma due to their connection to the football world cup, but for many, this opened up a new world of music that had previously proved utterly impenetrable. Returning to “world music”, there remains a barrier being metaphorically raised when using the phrase – it is used almost as an alert or apology that what they are about to hear is of a different type or standard to that which they may be expecting.
This can’t be right, surely? In more recent times, Buena Vista Social Club hauled in a whole film crew plus celebrated (Western) guitarist, Ry Cooder, to ensure people got the message that, y’know, you might quite like it. Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, perhaps the century’s most exceptional Qawwali singer, didn’t achieve any meaningful Western success until the involvement of Peter Gabriel in the mid-1980’s – even then, it required a remix from English trip-hoppers, Massive Attack to elevate him to the next level. All well and good but he had been performing to huge audiences and winning plaudits in Pakistan and the surrounding regions since 1971. Malian guitarist, Ali Farka Touré, was 14 years into his career before his signing to the World Circuit label brought him any commercial success in Europe and America, indeed only well after that was he declared one of the world’s most outstanding guitarists by both Spin Magazine and Rolling Stone. Let’s not even discuss the fact it took baked beans to draw Western attention to Ladysmith Black Mambazo.
Of course, politics has a huge part in how accessible music is for people to judge – or at least that was the case before the internet shrank the world to within the reach of everyone’s fingertips. Today, it seems as though we are conforming to conventions that are not only outdated but non-existent – indeed, it’s only a hop, skip and a jump until you’re pondering whether putting something in a pigeonhole according to the language or background to a song isn’t borderline racist. No-one thinks The Scorpions are a world music band. No-one refers to Björk as a world music artist. If an indie band records an album in Welsh, as in the case of Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci, it is hailed as novel, quaint or perhaps gimmicky, but never as world music. Is ‘traditional’ music confined to an instrument not attached to an electricity source?
Those who quickly point to Wikipedia ‘facts’ and indigenous music and the lineage of folk music in a specific country need only be reminded that the art of telling stories to a musical backing is hardly a niche (neither would we recommend Wikipedia as a source of cast-iron truth, for that matter). Can the power-source and what the instrument looks like be the issue? Guitars – in the sense of a soundboard, fretted-neck and strings – are certainly not Western in origin, most likely being Babylonian or near the African-Asian border. In fact, their appearance has changed little over the centuries, nor their purpose in their respective societies. The oud, still used prolifically in many countries, dates back to 1 B.C. at least and has more in common with an electric guitar than a harpsichord does to a synthesizer.
A recent musical venture offers some hope to this perplexing issue. Kalibé are a multi-cultural musical jamboree, featuring a revolving troupe of artists from Europe, Africa, South America and Asia , sharing little in the way of a common language but with instrumentation which is easily recognisable to the man on the street as drums, guitars bass and so on. They’re a band. Admittedly, they lean heavily on the air miles, but a singer with a musical backing produces beautiful music which conveys feelings, emotions and, depending on the track, a message of some kind. There’s no irony, neither is there any starchiness: it’s just good music. To ram the point home, a video of the group shows two acoustic guitars intertwining to create, a sound which, paradoxically, sounds far more like an oud or n’goni. Art imitating…art?
So, what do you think? Is World Music something to celebrate or a trite phrase to banish to the history books?