Music's global marketplace As the music industry goes global, the line between 'world' music and 'our' music gets harder to draw.

June 21, 1998|By J.D. CONSIDINE | J.D. CONSIDINE,SUN POP MUSIC CRITIC

Walk into a Tower Records anywhere in the world, and you'll find promotional displays that look essentially the same as the ones at home. Nor is there much difference in the CD bins, where you'll find international superstars like Celine Dion, U2 or Janet Jackson.

Some things, though, are quite different. Take the world-music section. Here in America, we think of world music as being foreign and exotic, performed in incomprehensible languages by singers with unpronounceable names. It's Oum Kalthoum and Marta Sebestyen, Fela Anikulapo Kuti and the late Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan.

In France, world music is Dwight Yoakam and Dolly Parton.

Country music sounds as foreign in France as French pop does here in America. Likewise, bluegrass is alien in Hong Kong, while Louisiana zydeco is considered strange in Sweden.

World music, in other words, is generally taken to mean "stuff they don't play in our country."

That's beginning to change. Just as salsa outsells ketchup in America and curry restaurants outnumber fish-and-chip shops in Britain, the world's musical tastes are broadening in all sorts of ways.

It isn't just a matter of American and English rock stars spicing up their music with foreign flavor; artists from Asia, Africa and Latin America have been expanding their palettes as well, mixing American and European styles like hip-hop and techno with their own indigenous sounds.

No wonder that, as the music industry grows increasingly global, the line between familiar and foreign becomes increasingly hard to draw.

When Irish singer/instrumentalist Enya started out in the mid-'80s, the fact that she sang in Gaelic and drew from Irish traditional music kept her out of the rock/pop section of most CD stores. But now that she has had several multi-platinum hits, her music seems as American as pizza pie.

Likewise, though the pygmy chants the French duo Deep Forest sampled onto their albums may have come from the world-music bins, the dance beat beneath those samples was enough to put the pygmies on the pop chart. Meanwhile, the Indonesian pop star Anggun is trying to make a name in America and Europe with a sound that draws from R&B, but maintains a distinctly Indonesian flavor.

"All those things are blurring the whole idea of what world music is," says Yale Evelev, the president of Luaka Bop, a New York-based label that has released recordings of Brazilian sambas, Indian film music, and Okinawan rock.

"The whole world-music melting pot is drawing from so many sources now," agrees Nick Clift, director of associated labels at Caroline Records. Caroline is the U.S. distributor for Real World, a British label whose catalog includes everything from performances by the National Dance Company of Cambodia to dance remixes of Pakistani qawwali music.

"There's no one identifiable sound that is instantly recognized as world music," says Clift. "It's just so many different things to so many people."

For many pop fans, world music began with "Graceland," Paul Simon's epochal 1986 album. Recorded with South African and American musicians, it introduced Americans to the perky, guitar-driven sound of mbaqanga, or "Township jive," and sold more than 5 million copies in the process.

"Graceland" was not Simon's first foray into world music; he'd worked with the Andean folk group Urubamba on Simon & Garfunkel's 1970 hit, "El Condor Pasa." Nor was he the only rocker going global in the mid-'80s. English art rocker Peter Gabriel had used African, Middle Eastern and Indian musicians on his albums, and even had a Top-40 hit with "In Your Eyes," a 1986 single featuring Senegalese singer Youssou N'Dour. New-waver David Byrne also got into the act with 1989's "Rei Momo," an entire album of Brazilian- and Caribbean-flavored songs.

But the roots of the world-music boom were planted some 20 years before "Graceland," when Elektra Records launched the Nonesuch Explorer series.

Offering everything from recordings of Japanese shakuhachi (a bamboo flute) to Balinese gamelan (an indigenous orchestra of gongs, drums and metallophones), the Explorer series was in large part the brainchild of Peter K. Siegel, a banjo player who got into making records because he wanted others to hear the "real, authentic" sound of the American folk musicians he had studied.

"It was not a great jump from that to explore all kinds of authentic music traditions," he says. Nor was it difficult to find great musicians to record. "Most of the things I recorded were in New York," he says. "Then as now, there were worlds of great musicians in New York - passing through, or doing a concert or on their way to be an artist-in-residence at a university."

The Explorer series had a number of firsts to its credit, but there were other labels offering music from far corners of the globe, such as Ocora, which released scholarly recordings from Radio France, and Lyrichord. Even the United Nations got into the business, thanks to the UNESCO collection of world-music albums.

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