World Music Comes of Age

By Scott London

World music transcends political, racial, and geographic boundaries in sometimes dramatic ways. While diplomats grind their teeth over stalled Middle East peace-talks, Israel's hottest export, Ofra Haza, is packing the dancefloors of distinctly Arabic cities like Cairo and Beirut. On South African radio — one of the last bastions of apartheid before its collapse — authorized news shared the airwaves with black township jive.

The tag "world music" was invented by a coterie of independent record labels and music critics. Their efforts paid off. World music has caught on and become part of the mainstream — even if the rhythms are anything but.

Alpha Blondy's 1986 peace concert on the border of Burkina Faso and his native Ivory Coast is an especially vivid demonstration of the music's universal language. The popular reggae star was credited with single-handedly keeping the conflict between the two countries from escalating into war. "The future of the world is the crossing of every kind of culture," says Beninese singer Angelique Kidjo. World music "expresses an open outlook, a lack of musical sectarianism."

But even as it bring us closer together, world music also highlights our differences. It's predicated on tradition, on roots, on the things that make us separate and distinct. For the most part, these differences are lost on record companies that still insist on treating world music as a convenient marketing category, rather than a genre like funk or reggae.

The tag "world music" was invented some years ago by a coterie of independent record labels and music critics who were frustrated by the difficulty in classifying the music. Their efforts paid off. Today phrases like "world beat," "roots music" and "global fusion" have caught on and become part of the mainstream — even if the music is anything but.

World music now refers to practically anything and everything, from yuppie exotica and art rock to we-are-the-world sentimentality. To some, the genre brings to mind WASPs (white Anglo-Saxon pop-stars) like Paul Simon, David Byrne, Mickey Hart, and Peter Gabriel — artists whose musical wanderlust has introduced diverse styles like Chinese temple music, Zulu chorales and Sufi qawwali to Western ears.

To others, world music represents an answer to the intellectual angst of so much Anglo-American rock. They claim it embodies a certain liberation of body and spirit. The burning rhythms of the Latin and African world, in the words of David Byrne, "propel and ignite the lower body — the hips, the butt, the pelvis." The global groove is about freedom of movement, they say — physiological as well as geographical.

Some international artists naturally feel torn between their musical heritage and the pressures of the global marketplace. Imported production values and global mass-marketing, they say, compromise the integrity and authenticity of their music. "There has been a lot of distortion of African music in America and Europe," says Zimbabwean artist Thomas Mapfumo. "We have to put the record straight."

Veteran Brazilian star Gilberto Gil agrees. As he sees it, world music is born of the collision between "the impulses toward emancipation, autonomy, and identity on the part of people in the so-called third world" and the efforts of the "first world in maintaining its power."

MTV now broadcasts to eighty countries worldwide. The slogan "the music revolution of the 90s will be televised" can be heard echoing from TV sets as far afield as Buenos Aires and Bombay. But the real revolution, says Gil, is rooted in "a truly universal sentiment," not MTV and not global mass-marketing. "It is the music of the people of the world."

Roots Roundup

For world music aficionados there's a whole globeful of exotic rhythms to explore. Check the international section of your record store, or for harder to find titles call one of the national mail order companies. You can also order directly from many of the small independent labels, like Stern's, Qbadisc and Schanachie. Here are a few recent releases you might want to try:

Africando: Trovador, Vol. 1 (Stern's)

Marking Stern's tenth anniversary is perhaps their strongest release to date. It's an explosive non-stop Afro-Cuban dance party that typifies the current trend of cross-cultural fusion by bringing together top Senegalese vocalists and the cream of the New York salsa scene. This is top-notch and belongs in every collection, for the music as well as the concept.

Varttina: Seleniko (Green Linnet)

These days the most enchanting female voices seem to emerge from the most unlikely corners of the globe — Tahiti, Bulgaria, and now Finland! Varttina ("Dragonfly" in Finnish) is composed of four women and a backing ensemble on banjo, bazouki and brass. The comparisons to Le Mystere des Voix Bulgares are inevitable, yet Varttina add hard-driving rhythms and a carefree exuberance to the mix. Simply delightful.

N.G. La Banda: En La Calle (Qbadisc)

Cuba's hottest soneros — "The New Generation Band" — have electrified the airwaves and dancefloors south of the border with their macho, brassy, highly charged salsa since 1988. This collection of world-class hits from the group's first two domestic releases is a sure cure for the blues when all else fails.

Ali Farka Toure The Source (Hannibal/Rykodisc)

Ali Farka Toure hails from the Timbuktu region of Mali, a dry and dusty place with scarcely anything in common with our American deep south. But you'd never guess from hearing this exquisite new collection of African blues from one of Africa's premiere guitarists. Without doubt, one of the year's most singular world music releases.

Ayub Ogada: En Mana Kuoyo (Real World/Caroline)

With just a lyre and a voice, and occasional drums, guitar and keyboards, Kenyan Ayub Ogada weaves a musical tapestry that seems to embody the passions and yearnings of an entire people. The utter simplicity of his music is made up for by a depth and a wrenching honesty almost inexpressible but for song.

Mouth Music Mo-Di (Rykodisc)

Mouth Music may be the final word on world fusion. Only narrowly reminiscent of their self-titled debut in 1991, this collection takes us on a spellbinding aural expedition from the heartland of Africa to the urban soundscapes of London and Paris by way of their native Scotland.

Baaba Maal: Lam Toro (Mango)

Baaba Maal has been virtually eclipsed by the popularity of Senegal's other big star Youssou N'Dour. But his music is at least as compelling, certainly as beautiful. Deeply rooted in traditional West African song forms, these melodies have an earthy, story-like quality even when combined with stylized Western production values.

Stern's Records Turns Ten

This year world music fans in London are marking the tenth anniversary of Stern's African Record Centre — one of the industry's most distinguished outlets for non-Western music. Begun in 1983 as a radio repair shop, Mr. Stern stocked a handful of African records among antiquated valve radios, electric fans and light bulbs, mostly for the benefit of African students and visitors to London. New owners took over upon his retirement, transforming the little shop off Tottenham Court Road into one of the world's leading international distribution centers. Stern's releases like Salif Keita's Soro, Kasse Mady's Fode and The Wassoulou Sound featuring some of Southern Mali's finest female vocalists, have in a few short years become all but classics.

In 1989, Stern's opened up an affiliate in the States. Already thriving in Europe, especially London and Paris, world music now started to explode in the US. "In this country people are experimenting with music in other languages and from other cultures," says Christina Roden of Stern's New York office, "because American pop music has reached the ultimate in tedious infantile blandness."

Stern's distributes recordings on World Circuit, Piranha, Sonodisc, M–lodie, KAZ, and other foreign labels, in addition to their own. Although they tend heavily toward Zairian soukous and West African music, their catalog includes such world music favorites as Bolivia's Rumillajta and South Africa's Miriam Makeba.

For more information: Stern's, 598 Broadway, New York NY 10012, (212) 925- 1648.

This article appeared in the Dayton Voice, October 7, 1993.