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World Music History

Angelique Kidjo complains in her introduction to the recent Music Hound World book that "Critics generally want a musician from a foreign country to stick to a pure tradition; he has to be 'authentic'." Well, there are 'purists' and 'traditionalists' in just about every form of music. But it was never part of the original World Music concept to tell artists what to do, just to help them sell records. There's no rules to stop Kidjo or Youssou N'Dour or Zap Mama if they want to make music that they or the buyers may feel fits better in a different box, or no box at all. If they move into a genre that thousands of other artists are already involved in, perhaps as a route to 'crossover' success, it's their choice. It is perhaps more likely to be their loss of uniqueness rather than 'authenticity' -- there may be many other artists already in that field who do it better -- that loses fans. If the recording artist has the right to make whatever music they like, the potential buyer also has the right to buy what they like -- or not.

Editor in frenzied Aran sweater attack on fiercely resisting World Music victim...spacer
Editor in frenzied Aran sweater attack on
fiercely resisting World Music victim...

Photo: Jak Kilby

Of course, it's another story if the changes are forced on the artist by the record label, but I don't detect that being on the agenda of any of the original World Music plotters. Yes, by becoming a rolling bandwagon it did later pick up a small selection of shysters, control freaks, newage knob-twiddlers, self-glorifiers and sick California crazies with a weird and varied selection of personal agendas. But that's bath water for you.

Sub-cultures of World Music fans even go through internecine attitude struggles. When I started to get this magazine up to speed with its coverage of what-was-yet-to-be-called World Music in the early '80s, many noses were looked down by other people who were already involved, or perhaps entering from the jazz direction, at the thought of these dreadfully embarrassing uncool folkies getting interested. It took quite a while to undo those prejudices (some of the very people who were later at that inaugural meeting took some convincing, I can tell you...) and it goes on in other quarters to this day. Yes, there are some out there who don't like the term World Music simply because -- as it has been consistently championed by the likes of fRoots -- they still make imagined Aran sweatery connotations. Twerps...

At the end of World Music Year Zero, 1987, I went to the best ever gig of my whole life -- Youssou N'Dour in the stadium at Ziguinchor, Casamance, Senegal. Later that night, we sat talking at Youssou's hotel and another English person in the party told him how he hoped Youssou wouldn't go the route of Salif Keita's then-recent Soro album, which the Englishman considered 'Westernised' as it was full of synthesizers. Youssou politely, gentlemanly, put the guy in his place, saying that instruments don't have a nationality, only musicians, and that if a Senegalese musician played a synthesizer or an electric guitar, it became a Senegalese instrument. Recently I was able to talk with Youssou again about Western attitudes to this music (he reconfirmed his 1987 belief) and whether he saw a difference between how the Americans, the British and the French approach things.

His answers were revealing. "I'm really more close to the British vision than the French," he said. "France was much more involved with their colonisation, compared with how things were with the British in Ghana, for example, and in the same way they really don't have such a good approach for this music. It's definitely different." We talked about how in colonial days their subjects had to learn French, whilst the British were content to largely leave education in the local language. "And Americans, they just don't know. They're really closed. When we did the big Amnesty tour everywhere, I was really close to one black American. We flew to Abidjan and when we arrived we took a bus, nine o'clock at night. He said 'Where is Africa?' He saw the buildings and lights. 'This is not Africa'. They think there is a country called Africa where we all speak 'African'".

Madagascar's Tarika have an affectionate term for those genuinely friendly, determined-to-bond Americans who show up backstage in all-purpose colourful robes and world music hats. They call them "professional Africans". And when Tarika first started touring in the USA, their pals from the Mustaphas told them that when people in diners or on the street asked where they came from, all they needed to say was "out of town" and the enquirer would be completely satisfied with the answer. It turned out to be absolutely true. I once read and have now forgotten the percentage of US citizens who own a passport, and it was startlingly low. That is probably why an American journalist on a conference panel once avowed that it was a lot easier for Europeans to hear World Music because we lived so much closer to it, and it's surely this rather than a box called World Music which explains why the most common adjective that crops up in Tarika's US press cuttings is "exotic".

The trouble with Americans, as somebody once said, is that they think they own the world but they don't know where it is. Roy Bookbinder once told a classic tale of a Florida club promoter who, on learning Roy was about to go to England on tour, assumed he must speak French as "it's so close to Paris..."

Of course none of the above applies to David Byrne, who is a sophisticated, educated, world-travelling artist, runs a label that has put out some fine international ethnic tropical worldbeat records, and rose above all that long ago. However, it maybe explains why he imagines everybody else categorises World Music in that way he doesn't like. But mostly they don't. Not outside his native USA, anyway, and I'm not even sure it's so universally true there. People just find it a useful box, all that was originally intended. They certainly put records in it that neither you, I, the original plotters or David Byrne alike would ever dream of including -- have you seen what Billboard includes on their World Music chart? -- but it still serves its original great purpose.

It's not all positive, but World Music (or Musique du Monde in neighbourly Paris) is way ahead on points. It sells large quantities of records that you couldn't find for love or money two decades ago. It has let many musicians in quite poor countries get new respect (and houses, cars and food for their families), and it turns out massive audiences for festivals and concerts. It has greatly helped international understanding and provoked cultural exchanges -- people who've found themselves neighbours in the same box have listened to each other and ended up making amazing music together. Oh, and it has allowed a motley bunch of enthusiasts to not yet need to get proper jobs. I call it a Good Thing, and just feel a bit sorry for people with the thinking time on their hands to decide they hate World Music... Lighten up, guys, it's only a box in a record shop.

This feature first appeared in fRoots 201, March 2000


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