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World Music History

The plot progressed quickly during that summer. The princely sum of £3500 was contributed by the participants, headed browser dividers were manufactured for distribution to shops along with a co-operative starter pack of some 50 albums that were likely to be stout sellers, freelance press officer Suzanne Parks was hired for a short contract, press releases and information packs were written, Ben Mandelson assembled a compilation cassette for promotion and sale through the NME, and October was designated World Music Month. Somebody much later suggested that our £3500 eventually bought more worldwide column inches and airwave hours pound-for-pound than any other campaign in the history of the music biz: Suzanne Parks got head-hunted by a major label as their press officer.

Co-plotters Roger Armstrong & Ben Mandelson
Co-plotters Roger Armstrong
and Ben Mandelson
Nowhere in any of this was there the faintest whiff of exploitation, exclusivity, cliques, ghettoisation, conspiracies, cultural imperialism, racism or any of the other nonsensical -isms that have been chucked at the notion since, often by people who ought to know better and in the end do little more than expose their own foibles. It was simply a great idea, followed up by a lot of unprecedented co-operation between enthusiasts (very few thought of each other as business rivals) who wanted others to have more opportunity to share their enthusiasms. Yes, it was good for business, but by being so it was automatically good for the incomes of the artists too.

Of course, being older and, if not wiser, having the benefit of hindsight, one can see that having such a simple concept without any baggage was still likely to bring problems. Even if the original idea was virus-free, it was bound to get thoroughly bugged as others logged on.

In minority musics as in political parties, people will always invent conspiracies and low motives where none exist (the enthusiastic activist must have a sub-plot, mustn't they?) But just try explaining the role of the enthusiast to a musician from a poor third world country where the very notion is alien. I remember an in-law of mine from Madagascar bursting into tears when, having finally grasped the totally unknown concept of 'a hobby', she also realised that this notion involving spare time was a supreme luxury even further beyond her grasp than mere material posessions.

Imagine what suspicions must easily and understandably course through the minds of third world musicians working with western producers and promoters, especially when their home experience of the record business is often of being ripped-off and bootlegged by their fellow countrymen on an unimaginable scale. Why on earth would this apparently rich Westerner (for that's how we seem) be doing this for hardly any return? They must be ripping me off! Couple that with the quite reasonable logic that Michael Jackson's got a CD out and he's riding in limos and living in a mansion, but I've got a CD out and I'm not... Small wonder that virtually all world music producers and promoters have at least one sad tale to tell of an unfortunate misunderstanding or relationship breakdown over money with a musician they'd worked so hard to help.

Mind you, when The Voice was conned into publishing a grossly libellous piece suggesting that artists including Dembo Konte & Kausu Kuyateh were being exploited by "World Music slavemasters" like Ian Anderson, Lucy Duran and the Womad organisation, Dembo was so livid that he immediately set off down to the paper's office to remonstrate. The features editor nearly lost his job: because the piece had said what they so wanted to be true, they'd published it without checking first...

The racism issue is always hard to deal with. At an unruly public discussion held in the mid '80s, a group of Arts Council funded UK-based African musicians declared that the reason they had to search for their own gigs and self-produce their albums was that they were black in a white society. I pointed out that virtually all white English folk musicians had to do the same thing, without any grant aid, but that if at the end of the day there were no gigs coming in we had to face up to the fact that maybe people didn't think our music was any good. The guys in that band never needed to deal with that concept as they could always use the racism excuse. Needless to say, it wasn't a well-received message.

Long after all the dust has settled, who knows what was really going through Paul Simon's mind when he set off to record Graceland? Yes, he was able to rejuvenate his career and enjoy the fruits of a multi-million seller with music that couldn't have been made without the contribution of outside-unknown black South African musicians. But was he aware of the political minefield he was entering over the cultural boycott? Was he an '80s Pat Boone figure, watering down black music just to gain success with his white audience? Or was he blindly propelled into the project by an enthusiasm for music he'd personally discovered and wanted to share with others? Who are we to judge, without exposing our own prejudices, jealousies and pre-conceived ideas? What I do know is that fellow DJs at my local radio station stopped taking the mickey and started asking to borrow the African records I'd been playing. And that when I saw the Graceland tour, established Simon fans were mightily pissed off by the way he stayed out of the limelight and let Ladysmith Black Mambazo and Miriam Makeba front the show, and since those days Ladysmith have become million-sellers themselves. Oh, but I forgot, they "sold out" by doing a beans commercial, so they don't count...

That latter kind of reaction to world music artists is part of yet another set of problems heaped on this genre that doesn't exist other than as a box in a record shop.

This feature first appeared in fRoots 201, March 2000


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