Ilya S. Savenok, Getty Images The sad news came across late Wednesday afternoon…
- Posted on Jul 3rd 2007 10:00AM by Steve Hochman
Since Around the World debuted, I've been routinely rankled by people referring to it as a "world-music blog." Well, I've started to accept the blog part, though as a journalist coming from the newspaper world I prefer to think of it -- sometimes insist on calling it -- a column. A blog is off-the-cuff. A column is more considered. OK, I'm a snob. But I can live with "blog."
"World music," though, is another matter. I'm hardly the first or the most prominent person to note this, but the term is just awful: It's patronizing, culturally chauvinistic and simply, well, wrong. What's more, it's all but meaningless. But it's not just that, by and large, the "world music" section of a music store, or what's left in the way of record stores at least, tends to be a dumping ground for anything that's not American- or English-rooted pop/rock/hip-hop/whatever. It's insulting that great artists, great legacies and, in many cases, centuries of great traditions of highly distinctive qualities, approaches and appeals all get boiled down to one convenient brand.
On the other hand, though, maybe it would be more insulting to have Cape Verdean "barefoot diva" Césaria Évora's discs slotted next to those of international superstar and bare-brained diva Paris Hilton. But then it's insulting for Hilary Duff's discs to be with Paris', too, so what does that say? The biggest problem is that all these diverse sounds, diverse legacies, distinctive cultures, get reduced to one catchall label. Seriously, what does the deeply spiritual music of Turkish Sufi Dervishes have to do with the fluffy pop of the same country's star Tarkan? At least they're the same nationality.
But some places you'd find them not far from, say, Johnny Hallyday, "the French Elvis." And how come the latter is put in world music, but Abba and Bjork are not? How about Celine Dion's French-language albums? Is Quebec part of "the world"? Why is reggae in the "reggae" section and not in the Jamaican bins under the world-music banner? Why is Hawaiian music often in the world section, though the French Cajun music of Louisiana is in Americana or folk? How about salsa as "world music," though the capital of the style is New York? Or consider Puerto Rico: If it ever becomes a state, then place it under American music. If it gains independence, it's world music. For now, it's in limbo.
Which brings us to some practical considerations: What do we do with designations that have shifted along with borders? Does music from Serbia and Bosnia still get put under the banner of the former Yugoslavia? And if not, then what to do with compilations from that region drawing from all those states when it was one nation? That's a lot of questions, with no real answers. I mean, I can be as guilty as anyone. Hugh Masekela is filed under South Africa in my collection, though Abba and Bjork are on the "general" shelves along with the Beatles, Stones, Madonna, Jay-Z, Freddie and the Dreamers, Slayer, et al. But where am I going to file a new album by Bob Brozman? His 'Lumiere,' on which he plays nearly all the instruments, mostly strummed and plucked sounds from a multitude of nations and cultures, is a tour de force. But what is it? It's Bob Brozman music.
Yes, of course the world-music designation serves a purpose. People inclined to seek out sounds from cultures other than their own are likely inclined to explore a multitude of origins. Alternate terms that pop to mind don't really do any better. I've been referring to this as a "global music column," but "global" is just a different way of saying "world." "Indigenous music" has been suggested, but, really, how much music is truly indigenous these days?
The one I've always liked is the catchphrase from the great 3 Mustaphas 3. The British band (which purported to be from the Balkans) played music from Eastern Europe, North Africa, the Middle East, India, Asia, Indonesia, Latin America and pretty much anywhere, sometimes in mix-and-match combinations -- arguably truly world music -- and can claim credit for introducing many Westerners to these "exotic" sounds in the '80s and '90s, both through its own recordings and the releases by leader Ben Mandelson, (a.k.a. Hijaz Mustapha) on his pioneering GlobeStyle Records label. (You can get a good idea of the highly irreverent but musically respectful ensemble from this wry video.) The way the band described its repertoire? "We play local music." The music just happened to come from many localities. That works for me. This is a local music blog! As the Mustaphas' motto says: "Forward in all directions!"