Perfect Sound Forever

(November 1999)

MusicHound World cover

These are excerpts from MusicHound World (Visible Ink Press), a comprehensive guide to world music available in stores and online, featuring biographies and album buyer's-guides on some 1,000 artists; reviews of some 300 compilation disks; and many sidebars on cultural background; with photos by Jack and Linda Vartoogian.

I Hate World Music
by David Byrne

I hate the term "world music." That's probably why I have been singled out to write about it. OK, I'm not stupid, I realize that it commonly refers to non-Western music of any and all sorts . . . popular music, traditional music, classical music and any other categories that might be lying around. It ranges from the most blatantly commercial (in their terms) Hindi film music to the ultra-cosmopolitan art-pop of Brazil. From a former state-run folkloric choir with arrangements done by classically trained composers, to norteño songs glorifying drug dealers.

This means, of course, that the term "world music" itself is inherently Euro . . . even Anglo . . . centric. The term means, to many people, anything that is not sung in English . . . or doesn't fit into the Anglo-western pop universe this year. Next year, who knows. That's a lot of stuff. Hence the thickness of this book. In the Victorian tradition of the great dictionary makers, bizarre museum builders and object categorizers, we are now attempting to classify all of that which we might define as music . . . from all over the world. Whew.

So, we find ourselves talking about 99% of the music on this planet.  Virtually all existing music---classical, traditional, commercial, experimental and alternative pop---if it's not in English. That means Balinese gamelan (classical AND traditional), metal salsa (yes, it exists, and it's great!), Turkish transvestite pop singers, German techno with "exotic" samples, African guitar-pop bands, African field recordings and Japanese formula-pop crap . . . and on and on. Virtually everything, like I said. Except English-language pop, folk and dance music . . . although there
is even some overlap there, but gimme a break; let's eliminate something!

So here we go, let's talk about . . . music.

Music is not necessarily all good. As in, not all good for you and not all made with integrity. In the first sense it can, and has, inspired a lot of wars, bloodshed and mayhem . . . and personal psychological damage as well.

As ridiculous as they often sound, the conservative critics of rock and roll, and now of techno and rave, are not far off the mark, for music truly is, at its best, plenty subversive and dangerous. Hearing the right piece of music at the right time of your life can inspire radical change, destructive personal behavior, and fascist politics. Sometimes all at the same time. Even joy is dangerous at the right, or wrong, time. Certainly joy and ecstasy are dangerous politically, but they can be confusing personally as well.

On the other hand, music can inspire love, religious ecstasy, cathartic release, social bonding and a glimpse of another dimension. A sense of another form of time . . . another kind of space . . . and another, better, universe. It heals a broken heart, explains and sympathizes, offers a shoulder to cry on and a friend when no one else understands.

But enough about me.

There is some terrific music being made all over the world. One would hope so . . . it would be strange to imagine, as many multinational corporations seem to, that Western pop holds the copyright on musical creativity. No, the fact is, there is probably more going on outside the Western pop tradition than inside it. There is so much incredible noise happening that we'll never exhaust it. For example, there are guitar bands in Africa that can be, if you let them, as inspiring and transporting as any kind of rock, pop, soul, funk or disco you grew up with. But you must have an inkling of that, or you wouldn't be reading this. You must already have heard something that made you realize there is so much great stuff out there, that to restrict yourself to only English-language pop is like deciding to eat the same meal for the rest of your life. The "no-surprise surprise," as the Holiday Inn chain claims, which is reassuring, I guess, but lacks some kick. Sure, sometimes you just wanna watch TV and fall asleep . . .

. . . But there are other times when you want to be transported, to somewhere special, with someone or by yourself, and get your mind around some stuff it never encountered before, feel feelings that you don't completely understand, and stay there for a while. Look around. Fall in love.

That's why you've picked up this book.

This interest in music not like that made in our own little villages (Dumbarton, Scotland and Arbutus, Maryland in my case) is not cultural tourism, because once you've let something in, let it grab a hold of you, you're forever changed. Of course, you can listen and remain unaffected, unmoved---like a tourist. Your loss.

But in fact, after listening to some of this music for a while, it probably won't seem "exotic" anymore, even if you still don't understand all the words. Thinking of things as exotic is only cool when it's your sister, co-worker or wife---it's nice to exoticize that which has become overly familiar. But in other circumstances viewing people and cultures as exotic is a distancing effect that too often allows for exploitation and racism. Maybe it's naive, but I would love to believe that once one grows to love some aspect of a culture, its music for instance, one can never again think of those people as less than oneself. I would like to imagine that if I am deeply moved by a song originating from some place other than my own hometown, then I have in some way shared an experience with the people of that culture. I can identify in some small way. Not that I will ever experience music exactly the same as those who make it. I'm not Hank Williams, or even Hank Jr., but I can still love his music and be moved by it. Doesn't mean I gotta live like him. Or get as fucked up as he did---or as much as the late, great flamenco singer Camarón de la Isla, for that matter.  That's what art does; it communicates the vibe, the feeling, the attitude . . . and we don't have to go through all the shit the artist did to get it. On the other hand, I know plenty of racists who love "soul" music, rap and R&B .
. . so dream on, Dave.

The "authenticity" issue is such a weird can of worms. Westerners get obsessed with it. They agonize over which is the "true" music, the real deal.   It always comes up. I myself would like to question the authenticity of some of the new-age ethno-fusion shit that's out there, but I also know that to rule out everything I personally abhor would be to rule out the possibility of a future miracle. I don't have to listen to all of it, but I don't feel a need to prohibit it either. Everybody knows the world has two types of music. My kind, and everyone else's. And even my kind ain't always so great.

What is considered authentic today was probably some kind of bastard fusion a few years ago. I don't think The Police would ever qualify as an "authentic" reggae band . . . but does it matter? An all-Japanese salsa orchestra's record was Number One on the salsa charts in the U.S.---did the
salseros care? No, most loved the songs and were frankly amazed. So, in my humble opinion, we can make no rules as far as music goes. Fela Kuti, the great Nigerian musical mastermind, was as influenced by Miles and Coltrane as he was by African grooves. . . . OK, maybe that one seems
natural. But check this: Mr. Juju himself, King Sunny Adé, namechecks country & western crooner Jim Reeves as an influence. True. Rumor has it that the famous Balinese monkey chant was coordinated and choreographed by a German! The first South African pop record I bought was all tunes with American car race themes---Indy 500 and the like. Sound effects too. So let's forget about this authenticity bugaboo. I'm sorry I even brought it up. If one is transported by the music, then knowing that the creators had open ears can only add to the enjoyment.

Maybe that's where this book comes in. I myself find that knowing a little more about the artist who wrote or recorded one of my favorite songs only intensifies the listening and dancing experience. And often a little information such as that provided here can help a fan sniff out some other sounds of interest nearby. Not by following a load of hype and marketing muscle, but by venturing further down a path of musical pleasure.

World music: The Real Alternative
by Angélique Kidjo

By definition, one would think every music made in the world is "world" music. It's not! But then I wouldn't want people to think: World music is the music of the "rest" of the world, apart from England and America; or even: It's Third World music.

Whatever its meaning, this new label (for a genre that's not new: Miriam Makeba is a perfect example of a world-music artist from the '60s who succeeded in the '60s) promotes a huge variety of sounds. From griots to high-tech sound designers, all these musics prove you can be different; you don't have to be "mainstream" to express yourself and touch people all over the world.

The core of the genre is, I guess, traditional music because that's what creates the differences between every culture and influences the style of the artists. But tradition is not an end. Critics generally want a musician from a foreign country to stick to a pure tradition; he has to be "authentic." That's not considering him as an artist but as an animal in a zoo. You would not ask Bono from U2 to sing just Irish folk music!

The most thrilling part of world music, beyond the instruments, the techniques---which the MusicHound World book presents in detail---is the personality of the artists themselves. While reading the articles you'll discover that Cesaria Evora, for example, sings in a particular language with a special kind of music, but first of all she is Cesaria: a unique human being whose voice carries an emotion that can cross any frontier.

Believe me, music in the world is so rich. When I travel in my own country, every village has its own rhythms, its own songs; imagine what it means when you're talking about so many countries and five continents. So I hope this book will help you not to get lost and to have a better idea of the diversity
that is just waiting to be heard. You will find the "old school"---for instance, E.T. Mensah, the king of highlife music, who used to make me dance as a little girl---and you have the new generation like Talvin Singh. But there's so much more: Imagine, in the same book you can find Jobim, Nustrat
Fateh Ali Khan and Bob Marley!

I've got one wish: I hope 10 years from now this book, quite thick already, will double, triple with thousands of new artists who will emerge from every country of the world, letting us discover sounds and emotions no one could have imagined.

Angélique Kidjo is perhaps the reigning queen of world music, breaking barriers in her own art and all across the pop market. Her unique synthesis of the traditional sounds of her native Benin with state-of-the-art technology and an up-to-date spectrum of other styles has made her one of the best-regarded performers in world-music---and all music. She is known to U.S. listeners for high-profile crossovers like her recent appearances on the Lilith Festival tour, and has made inroads virtually unprecedented for an African artist in America. In Kidjo world music finds one of its most eloquent ambassadors.

Also see MusicHound editor Adam McGovern's article Whose World Is It, Anyway?

Check out the rest of PERFECT SOUND FOREVER