Published Feb 21, 2009There's a steady downpour outside Toronto's Mod Club on a Tuesday in November 2007. It's a lousy night to go out, but inside, it's packed; this show has enough buzz to overcome the elements. The room is full of the usual suspects - music industry regulars, local musicians, hipsters, and backwards-ballcap types. What's unusual is the band that's attracted so much attention: Tinariwen, a band of grizzled Touareg nomads from the Sahara desert. Their sonorous electric guitar wailing conjures up the same kind of blues that's at the very heart of rock, soul and hip-hop. Though their vocals are almost entirely in Tamashek, it makes no difference to the crowd entranced by the hand-drummed grooves. Andy Morgan, a former journalist who is the group's manager, says: "I'm always struck by how many people who say I'm not really a fan of African music but I love Tinariwen, it reminds me of Can or the Grateful Dead."
Tinariwen's zeitgeist moment was not just one of those occasional world music crossovers, but an indication that the notion of world music itself has evolved. Once a term written off for dead, today, somewhat surprisingly, world music remains both a coherent concept and a specialty genre. Though it's criticized for straitjacketing dozens of incompatible musical styles into an impossibly broad category, there exists a network of artists, publicists, labels, journalists and above all, fans that enjoy a wide variety of international sounds. At best, to be classified as a world music artist can be liberating, says Crammed Discs' Marc Hollander, who released another surprise breakthrough act in Konono #1. Upon receiving a special award at WOMEX, the annual World Music Expo in 2004, he commented, "If you don't sing in English and/or if you use elements of non-European music, you're thrown in the world music bin, whether you like it or not. But once you're there, you're free to do whatever you like without bothering about the dictatorship of formats, which means you can be much more inventive."
World music is no longer "other folks' music"; this new world is multi-polar. Bands find themselves with greater diversity of fans than ever before, as the choose-your-own-adventure of online music leads passionate appreciators to choices they'd never considered. World music has evolved beyond a take-your-medicine embrace of cultural "otherness," it's about recognizing the multiple levels of cultural exchange - even the shallow ones - that are redefining the idea of "mainstream."
Audiences may define themselves in sympathy with or in opposition to the concept of world music, but its infrastructure is an important confluence of mass media attention, government funding, community promotion, and entrepreneurial activity that promotes cross-cultural understanding around the world, and in our neighbourhoods. In short, world music remains a meaningful term, even as bands like Tinariwen are making it meaningless.
Though the notion of world music - meaning "non-European musical forms" - existed in academia from the 1950s onward, the marketing term was coined in 1987 in the wake of the success of Paul Simon's Graceland. A number of labels met in October of that year in the hopes of securing shelf space in record stores for non-English language music from around the world. They succeeded all too well.
Wayne Marshall is professor of ethnomusicology at Brandeis University, but is better known for his insightful journeys through "nu whirl music" on his blog Wayne and Wax. Marshall, who's as comfortable teaching with drum machines as with textbooks, observes, "It's kind of amazing that 20 years since, there is such stability in what [world music] means. When we talk about and market 'world music' we still have a discrete sense of there being some world out there from which we, as centred consumers, can sample."
Ten years ago, The New York Times published David Byrne's influential essay "I Hate World Music." Byrne described the concept as "weird but safe, exotica [that] is beautiful but irrelevant." Additionally, "the myths and clichés of national and cultural traits flourish in the marketing of music." Anything packaged and sold through world music labels was a construct for Western ears, a watered down representation that exaggerated stereotypes rather than tore them down. Basically, "it groups everything and anything that isn't 'us' into 'them.'"
Since then, enabled by the internet, the independent production of music both live and in the studio has exploded. Some players are content to strive for big fish/small pond status, while others are broadening the discourse of, as Hollander called it, "the world music bin."
In particular, world music's live circuit has been a main facilitator of this discourse and Harbourfront Centre in Toronto is one of its keystones in North America. The not-for-profit public trust hosts "World Routes" festivals every weekend from Canada Day to Labour Day, and more than 85 percent of its programming is free. Alok Sharma, one of Harbourfront's bookers, says, "It's part of a whole mandate of education and entertainment. Making it free allows people to come out from all stripes. Class, communities, young, old, families, tourists."
Sharma uses the term "globalista" to describe Harbourfront's regular audiences. "A globalista is someone who embraces the world and everything that it offers. They dig deeper; those are the key people who are going to tell other people." Are globalistas typically white people looking for a safe hit of "other"? Sharma sees audiences that are larger and more representative of Toronto's huge range of ethnicity and class than before. "It's not just Caucasians," he says, "it's citizens of the world."
Since Sharma started at Harbourfront five years ago, he has sought to remix the Centre's festival offerings. Nowadays, summertime festivals not only celebrate cultures from around the world, but explore themes that don't hang on geographically- or ethnically-defined topics. The most notable example is Beats Breaks and Culture, a festival that examines electronic music and urban culture around the world. At this festival, global and domestic hip-hop share the same stage, Konono #1 and Ladytron are well matched, and film, dancing and workshops further illustrate the theme. Beats Breaks and Culture has been a huge success among younger globalistas. "We've seen a real influx of youth," says Sharma. "We've opened new audiences of people who realize this place is great. And they continue to come for other festivals."
World music promoters are aggregating audiences differently than in the past. Smart promoters build an audience from the ground up by working with community groups, and appealing to the intersections between international and local musical trends. Smart promoters create more globalistas. These days, world music is more concerned with iterations of domestic identity than the continued maintenance of otherness.
Hollander's WOMEX speech coined a term to describe the thinking that leads to such aggregations: transculturalism. "Every individual is a nexus of various influences, cultures, family history, a religion, a certain social class, an age group, a gender, and each person's unique and rich identity is the intersection of all these elements. But today, there's a widespread attitude that reduces identity to a single affiliation. I strongly believe that multiple affiliation is something to be proud of. In other words, instead of multiculturalism, where each group retreats in its little enclosure, let's have more transculturalism - more mixtures!"
The distinction between multi- and transculturalism ought to resonate in Canada. The population of foreign-born Canadians living in Montreal, Vancouver and Toronto has nearly tripled since 1986, and the latter two will be composed of visible minority majorities by 2017. But unlike previous generations of immigrants, there is greater interchange between homeland and diaspora. Cable access, the internet and the ubiquity of international travel make it possible to maintain real-time cultural ties with one's country of origin. At the same time, the mainstreaming effect of Tim Hortons, endless winter, and introspective singer-songwriters remain powerful identity shaping forces in Canada. If transculturalism asserts that people are able to construct multiple identities, "home" and "other" are not necessarily in contradiction. Both immigrants and long-established residents can participate in both mass culture and niche cultures. Assimilation is not the unidirectional force it used to be.
"I have noticed, as you put it, non-white kids trying on signifiers of whiteness, tight pants and skateboards and that sort of thing," comments Wayne Marshall. "I think that there is a greater interest in playing with these symbols rather than rallying around them like flags, because of the cosmopolitan experience in these cities, and also the internet, which allows people to try on all kinds of hats and avatars. There's a shift in the way young people feel about these symbols, which have traditionally been seen as hard and fast markers of this or that identity." Diverse groups of like-minded individuals can form and recombine with greater ease than ever before.
This is true even within indie rock, so often considered to be a bastion of white, rich, liberal arts-educated nerds. This decade has seen rock open up to more participation from women, increased tolerance of alternate sexuality, and a greater range of instrumental usage, from synthesizers to accordions to glockenspiels. Inevitably, bands are less white than they used to be. Though indie rock's membership may seem to be monochromatic compared to world music, Canada's demography weighs on the evolution of both. The difference is that transcultural affiliations are championed within world music, but are harder to express in rock.
Ottawa folk/rock band the Acorn's experience with their 2007 release Glory Hope Mountain is a case in point. The band is fronted by singer/guitarist Rolf Klausener, who is of mixed German/Honduran heritage, and also includes a Japanese/French woman and a Chinese immigrant. Though they habitually goof on ethnic stereotypes in rehearsals, what unites them is the same as any other band: common musical ground.
Glory Hope Mountain ended up being a transformative experience for Klausener and the band. The disc is based on the stories of Klausener's mother's life in Honduras, and draws from the musical sensibilities of that nation's Garifuna people. When Glory Hope Mountain was in production, Klausener had to come to terms with exploring a culture that was part of his heritage, yet foreign to him, as he had little awareness of his mother's background. The research of Garifuna rhythms was as novel for him as for the rest of the group. "There was a general fear that it would be a little trite, and we were trying to do something way beyond our skill set and cultural knowledge. But the percussion on our record, those polyrhythms and contrapuntal rhythms, were things I was always interested in. I really connected with it when I heard that music." This rhythmic affinity and the focus on other points of commonality made the musical fusion successful. "The biggest thing we took away from the experimentation [was that the Garifuna] were entertaining themselves with what they had available to them, and they were building their culture with what was all around them - that was really inspiring to us more than anything else."
The disc soon ran up against pop culture's most pervasive definition of world music: its continued otherness in music media. Since the band was regionally plugged into indie circles, Glory Hope Mountain ended up going to rock journalists who often didn't know how to write about its non-rock elements. Klausener was most frustrated by journalists who didn't even try. "You know, the definitions [of Garifuna music], the terms and the lexicon are all there in our press release. But whenever I see a review of Glory Hope Mountain [reviewers] say, 'Canadian folk pop band with lots of world music influences.' That's just pure laziness. The second they hear something that doesn't have anything to do with guitars or Western high culture music like violins and cellos, it's 'other' worldly." While there was no issue with the Acorn existing as a multi-ethnic, co-ed rock band, the introduction of a specific cultural affiliation was viewed with suspicion by many rock journalists.
This is one of the considerable barriers that exists to music media to decoupling from a traditional view of the mainstream.
Still huddling around the dying embers of Canada's major labels and chasing after big-ticket advertising to support expensive print runs, music media covers the scene it knows, and that its advertising points toward: rock, with coverage of other types of music on a strategic basis. Well-connected labels and publicists ensure a steady stream of hype for journalists and editors. Staffers and freelancers at alt-weeklies live in neighbourhoods populated by perpetually up-and-coming bands. Rock is still the most popular musical genre in Canada, and, as the centre of the industry, it attracts a disproportionate amount of attention while being resistant to change. If world music is "other folks' music," rock is "our music." These not-so-invisible barriers entrench the specialty status of world music and the transcultural discussion that goes with it.
When the term world music is used by rock journalists, it is usually pejorative, a profoundly uncool sensibility teeming with insincerity and musical timidity. In Pitchfork, the Acorn were said to have "avoided generic world music traps," and a write-up of the band for I Heart Music's "Hottest Bands of 2007" warned that they "threw in all sorts of (brace yourselves) world music." The combination of rock with not-rock is still more often than not seen as a shallow fusion.
Alan Bishop is the head of Seattle's Sublime Frequencies, a label that specializes in the obscure sights and sounds of the globe, yet distances itself from the world music circuit. He is very specific about the difference between natural hybrids and self-conscious ones. "For me, the hybrid music that was being created worldwide in the past (especially the 1960s) was more interesting, unique, creative, and brilliant than what has been occurring since and this is the primary reason I continue to search for these music styles for inspiration, compositional ideas, studio production techniques, and general mind-blowing entertainment. This has more to do with (today's sterile) recording quality, industry 'standards,' the propagation of an 'acceptable' world entertainment industry, and the endless thirst for money and fame."
This point of view speaks to certain critics, who see in Sublime Frequencies the kind of rock'n'roll subversion that so much world fusion misses. Indeed, Sublime Frequencies has released thrilling examples of Thai psychedelia and lo-fi Iranian pop that "avoid world music traps" which, in Klausener's description, display indie values of "a little tape hiss, out of tune guitars, or out of time drum kit [as opposed to] perfectly click track-recorded drums." But does this represent more authentic world music, or just a shallow kinship with rock values?
One of the reasons Tinariwen was able to fill a rock club that November was due to the hype generated by influential critics won over by the band's sheer ability to rock out. Tinariwen's music seemed like the furthest thing from a shallow fusion.
And yet that's partly what it is, says band manager Andy Morgan. "The kind of music they heard when they were young men growing up in the desert were million-selling records. They were listening to Boney M, Led Zeppelin, Michael Jackson, Pink Floyd. Things like the Velvet Underground never got to the desert. I think some people who like Tinariwen because they're raunchy and alternative are really surprised when they talk about their influences; they're almost cheesy." Their imitations of rock'n'roll just happened to mix well with Touareg musical forms.
While this affiliation resonated with rock audiences, Tinariwen's success really represented the continued ability of the traditional world music network to create transcultural audiences - Harbourfront had whetted Toronto's appetite by booking them two years previously, and globalistas spread the word. New markets create opportunities for year-round promoters like Toronto's Small World Music, who produced the Tinariwen show as a ticketed event.
Ultimately, it's futile to tease out hard and fast audience segments. The age of RIYL that we live in, aided and abetted by online social networks, breaks down hard and fast genre allegiance, turning all of us into globalistas pursuing hybrid musical forms and identities. Even among self-identified rock fans, situational affiliations of friends, events, and groups lead to interest in music the world over, whether or not it sounds like world music. That's likely why the universally accessible pop sheen of Mali's Amadou and Mariam fit well with the universally popular Coldplay, with whom they'll tour in North America this July.
However, the leading edge of nu whirl music is on the dance floor, both musically and conceptually. Before world music, there was disco, whose anything-goes beatscapes drew from from Latin, Caribbean, European and African sounds. Disco proved that dance music hybrids could be appealing on utterly shallow or impossibly deep levels, a feeling that continues today. Says Marshall, "There is an interest among a new generation of music enthusiasts, musicians and DJs in hearing a kind of unity across genres provided in part by the global languages in which they speak - the musical languages of drum machines, records and synthesizers that are increasingly available all over the world. What tethers it to world music is the exotic and the foreign. I don't want to imply that that's a negative thing; oftentimes, the embrace of some of these genres by DJs in various metropolitan cities is less about objectifying the world that's out there [than] a powerful way to embrace what's all around us in local places. By attending to these soundscapes and embracing some of those so called foreign sounds, [one] might also re-imagine the local."
In a practical sense, dance music opens up more possibilities for touring when only one or two people have to get paid rather than a 15-piece band. Myspace organized tours are easier with smaller ensembles, which keeps greater control with the artist, addressing power dynamics in a way which was impossible before. World music venues may not be the earliest adopters of these types of artists, but festivals like Beats Breaks and Culture can play an important role in showcasing "unity across genres" while providing decent paydays to balance out less lucrative gigs.
World music as a genre may not become more popular (arguably, ethnospecific events in banquet halls and convention centres represent bigger dollars), but international perspectives on music are inevitable. Just look at the relative appreciation and sophistication of attitudes toward food. Ethnic restaurants and chefs are habitually cited as the greatest of culinary artisans, regardless of genre. The Food Network is the most transcultural channel on TV. Most tellingly, the fusions of global cuisine seem so much more natural than with global music - the very soul of Italian and Indian food derives from South American ingredients like tomatoes, potatoes and chillies. The world music circuit offers the infrastructure and ideas about how fusions like this might happen in music, and transcultural globalistas empowered by electronic communication will help develop them.
But no matter how deeply transcultural exchanges affect our ideas of mainstream, there will always be some sense of "world music." World music remains a standard term for retail and virtual retail because every culture seeks some kind of distinction between domestic and foreign. Alan Bishop gets the last word. "In Jakarta, they have the Indonesian section with local artists and they have the 'world' section, which contains releases by the Beatles, Rod Stewart, Madonna, John Coltrane, Eminem, Beyonce, etc. This represents how absurd the term 'world music' truly is." Absurd it may be, but far from irrelevant.