JOHN STORM ROBERTS
Interview by Jason Gross (February 1997)
Before anyone knew about 'world music,' John Storm Roberts was knee-deep in it. Around the time that Peter Gabriel, Sting, and David Byrne were born and Paul Simon barely hit his teens, Roberts was listening, cataloging, documenting and promoting music from countries that most Westerners never knew about. After a teenage fascination with calypso and flamenco and learning several languages at Oxford, Roberts was reviewing local records for a newspaper in Nairobi and then returned to England to produce programs on African music for the BBC before coming to America in 1970 to work at another African newspaper. In the seventies, this enterprise would turn into Authentic then Original Music which Roberts still runs today as well as writing many articles and books- their catalog went from one page to dozens of releases from all over the world. Because of Roberts' hard work and love of 'world music,' there is a lot more of it around and being appreciated by more and more people. Before I started, he warned me to make sure my tape recorder was working: he did an exclusive interview with Maurice White (Earth, Wind and Fire) only to find that his tape didn't work. Luckily, mine did work. The other thing he warned me was 'I don't have an off switch.'
HOW DO YOU FIND OUT ABOUT MUSIC FROM OTHER CULTURES AND HOW DO YOU DECIDE WHICH MUSIC TO RELEASE WITH ORIGINAL?
Whether I like it or whether I think it's good. As soon as you're doing anything at that level, if you're selling records, you have to fight people off with a stick. They're sending you catalogs and so on and I read stuff. One of the advantages I have is that I've known where the bodies are buried because I've been listening to what's called 'world music' since the early fifties. We were trying to sell certain types of music before anyone had heard of them- that's why I said 'trying to.' We were importing Brazilian accordion music before anyone else here did the same. We were doing the same with Zouk- we had a couple of records that I got from Paris. This was a couple of years before anyone else here or in London had discovered it.
THE TERM 'WORLD MUSIC' SEEMS TO MEAN THAT MUSIC FROM AMERICA IS THE REAL MUSIC AND MUSIC FROM ANYWHERE ELSE IS 'FOREIGN.' WHAT DO YOU THINK ABOUT THE SEMANTICS OF THAT?
I don't think that it's a problem. Everyone thinks they're the center of the world. I always tell people to take a globe and put a pin down and where ever it goes is clearly the center of the world. People don't see it that way. It's not just Americans. People on some small Pacific island emotionally think that their island is the center of the world and other music is foreign music. In the United States, 'world music' is basically a marketing term anyway. American music is also world music and so are Bach and Beethoven, in reality.
WHAT IS WORLD MUSIC IN AMERICA THEN?
All music is music from the world. We've got no music from outer space despite that new-age NPR program 'From the Heart of Space.' Therefore the term is a way to indicate 'all the musics that have not already been traditionally defined in the American market.'
ORIGINAL MARKETS LATIN MUSIC AND AMERICAN INDIAN MUSIC ALSO. DOES THAT FALL IN THIS CATEGORY?
I don't just sell 'world music.' We sell American ethnic music as well. It entirely has to do with American perceptions. I have never had much patience with nit-picking complaints about nomenclature. People complained about the word 'jazz.' If people tended to look down on jazz, it was not because of the name but because of the racial attitudes in this country. You got to have a label. The problem is not when you label something but when you make a prescriptive label. If you say 'European classical music good, some other type of music bad' then you're in trouble. But people do talk nonsense! You only have to think for two seconds to see that all of this about 'music is the universal language' is purest nonsense! Universal language? You try and put a Chinese record on a Nashville record station and see what happens. It's just baloney! I mean, it would be NICE but music is just as much to be learned and understood as Chinese or French or Swahili. You don't have to go to school to do it. I was lucky- I did it in my teens by just plain listening to it. It's just like a baby learns English or French or Swahili by listening to it. But it has to done. Music isn't a universal language at all, even if one language or one area's music dominates.
YOU'VE TALKED ABOUT THE INFLUENCE OF AMERICAN AND CUBAN MUSIC ON AFRICAN MUSIC. IN YOUR CATALOG, YOU TALK ABOUT 'BLAND SYNTHESIZED AFRO-POP.' DO YOU THINK MUSICAL CROSS-POLLENIZATION IS A BAD THING THEN?
Absolutely not. All music is cross-pollenized. With the stuff I was studying, the African pop music which I was writing about very enthusiastically, the term in those days, which was said with a shudder of good taste, was 'westernized.' Nobody complains that African music is 'Arab-ized.' It just happened earlier. Is it OK because it happened a hundred years ago but it's not OK because it happened 30 years ago? I mean, there are legitimate though unfounded fears. It's been said to me 'It's not the fact that westernization is good or bad but that the Arabization of African music happened over a longer period.' The enormous amount available of foreign culture is the problem. It's like a tidal wave versus the tide coming in.
But the thing is that this is overstated. Firstly, in most countries, there's far more local music going on than people realize. Also, there's this kind of well meaning neo-colonialism. People who fear for foreign cultures, certainly big cultures, are really kind of neo-colonialists. The implication is that these are poor, weak and therefore second-rate cultures and because they're so weak, anything that happens to them will cause them to disappear. In point of fact, there were many Ghanaians that were worried that highlife was being killed by Congolese music. What was happening was that it was fashionable and the guitarists were borrowing licks but they were still also playing highlife. In 1970, I was told that James Brown was killing highlife dead. James Brown was hugely popular. But highlife was still going strong. It was just another influence. Fads and fancies come along all the time. For a while, it seems to be everywhere- the bands are playing the music and the kids are wearing the T-shirts. But it doesn't last long. The original music just goes on.
Musicians pinch from everywhere. It's true that the real small cultures have tended to disappear but they always have. The Latin culture that people are proud of is the result of various other cultures not only mixing but also blending into it. My own culture, the Scottish music and Celtic singing styles, are thought to be the remains of English music with strong middle-eastern influences. Most of the music that people think of is traditional Italian or whatever now was a new style that grew up in the nineteenth century that pushed out something else from earlier. We would all be living in caves if things didn't change. Some things disappear and it's a balance.
As far as 'pure' music goes, there's no such thing. People who say that music is 'pure' mean that the influences from outside happened a long time ago or they don't know what they are. I severely doubt that except possibly for three guys in middle of the Australian desert that there is any music that is not a result of a blending of what was there before with outside influences.
DO YOU THINK THAT UNDERSTANDING THE MUSIC OF OTHER CULTURES MIGHT LEAD TO AN UNDERSTANDING OF PEOPLE FROM OTHER CULTURES?
Probably not. It's bound to lead to SOME more understanding at some level. The more you know, the more you understand of the reality. But for one thing, you only have to look at the top 10 in the World Beat to see that the only thing that's really happening, the stuff that's allegedly selling really well, is the World-Beat mix, which is essentially a development in Western music, American music. It's not Spaniards that are putting together Flamenco and Malian music, it's producers claiming to be doing something hip and to some extent trying to sell something. You can regard this as a kind of well-meaning colonialism. It's a fiddling around. I'm not interested in that stuff. The trouble with the term 'world music' is that it means two different things. I'm interested in what we call 'other peoples' music.'
SO YOU'RE TALKING ABOUT ARTISTS EXPLOITING OTHER CULTURES?
What's exploit mean? Exploit means 'to use.' I just don't want ketchup on everything. I want to go into an Indian restaurant and buy tandoori and I don't want ketchup on it. It's OK at a concert. There's no problem with people coming on and jamming. That's one thing. Putting out records particularly if, as is sometimes the case, the version with ketchup is more available than the original thing is ridiculous. I like to play barrelhouse piano, which I do badly. Even if I knew how to play it better, I wouldn't put out a record of it. I'd just play it for myself and my friends, just to enjoy it. The thing is 'world beat' where bands play music influenced by all sorts of different places, that's a phenomenon of American, English and German music. It has nothing to do with Kenya or where ever. Understood as that, it's fine. It's probably going to be a very valuable freshener for American music. It's been happening in 'classical' music like Philip Glass and all the people who've been influenced by Indonesian music. But we're not exploiting it, we're benefiting from it. Was Mozart exploiting the Turks when he wrote a Turkish march which was in fact a piece of Viennese music? Were the Congolese guitarists of the 1950s exploiting Western culture in any way? No. You can't have it where you're stealing from me but I'm only borrowing from you.
WHAT DO THINK ABOUT THE POPULARITY OF 'WORLD MUSIC' IN THE LAST FIVE OR TEN YEARS?
It's only become mildly more popular. When you can figure out why towns in this country now have Thai restaurants which 20 years ago would probably have regarded the pizzeria as the most exotic restaurant in town, I'll tell you why world music is more popular. I think it's just that the extremely provincial American outlook is beginning to change at all sorts of level. You've got to remember that from the point of view of someone who's come here from elsewhere, this is a very isolated as well as a very large country with a little bit of trickle of Canada at the top (which seems like a 51st state to most Americans anyway) and Mexico at the bottom of it (which is still for most Americans just a place to go for honeymoons). As far as any personal experience is concerned, the fact of the matter is that this is a huge and isolated country. Americans are as isolated as the Tajiks, in fact more isolated because the Tajiks are in the middle of large numbers of cultures even if they're not cultures we know.
It's simply a matter of viewpoint. Stick the pin in the map over somewhere in central Asia and you have the meeting of an enormous numbers of cultures. The fact that Americans don't know about them doesn't have any impact or meaning on any of those cultures. Most people don't care what Americans do as long as they send records and not weapons. And even then, they want the weapons when they need them. It's not just American arrogance though- everyone thinks they're the cat's whiskers. The less people know, the more they think that their own stuff is terrific. You pick some South Sea islander who has never even heard of France and he will tell you that his island is the most beautiful place in the world. There are plenty of people nearer to home who do the same thing from all sorts of cultures.
WHAT DO YOU THINK ABOUT THE ROLE OF MUSIC IN AMERICAN CULTURE AS OPPOSED TO IT'S ROLE IN OTHER CULTURES?
It's a tricky question. Music is an integral part of African culture and is used in ways that it isn't used in the States. It's more interesting that it's more activity-related. There is bed-wetting music as well as putting-baby-to-sleep music in some countries. It's possible that as Western societies have become less communal, the thing has changed. There are a lot of aspects of music that people don't know the background of. Call and response singing was far more common in Europe than is now because things were done differently. When people were farming by hand, they sang call and response songs. But there are certain differences. The mass in Roman Catholicism remains a valid mass even if there is no music. You cannot have a valid Santeria ceremony without the appropriate rhythms because the gods will not come without the right rhythms.
WHAT ABOUT DIFFERENCES BETWEEN THE MUSIC OF OTHER CULTURES? PEOPLE SEEM TO HAVE PRIDE IN THEIR OWN CULTURE AND MUSIC.
It's hard to answer that unless you want to give me a commission to write a book. People worrying about these things frequently have a lack of perspective. Often, I think of in terms of analogy. An analogy I'm think of is people who fuss about language. The French academe don't know how language works apart from the fact that they're always complaining about the effects on their beloved French. But if there wasn't a Latin language, their beloved French wouldn't exist. Also, things come in for a while and if they're not useful and they don't serve a purpose, they disappear. I remember reading a letter in the fifties in the London Times complaining about Americanisms in English. There were three quoted: 'commute' is the only one that survived. There was no word in British English so it was a useful word. Linguists call them 'loan words.' I mean, fashions come and go and the useful bits stay behind. The old habanera rhythm from Cuba got very americanized in Nashville country music in some songs. That doesn't mean that Nashville music has disappeared or that it sounds like Cuban music. It's a process that happens over a period. Just as a lot of interesting music can develop via a lot of bloody awful recordings, so it's true of a larger process.
YOU ONCE SAID THAT THERE IS VERY LITTLE VARIETY OF MUSIC IN MOST STORES IN AMERICA.
The ideal would be for everything to be available. The trouble is that most people listen to their own top 40 and that's always been the case. There's a royal road to bankruptcy which is to put out and make available a really terrific range of genuine music. People don't want it even if they should want it. This comes back to the nonsense about music as the universal language. They don't speak the language and they don't want to. They don't give a shit.
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