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- Posted on Jan 4th 2011 2:30PM by Steve Hochman
You might think so to scan the recent and upcoming release schedules of some of the US's leading independent record labels. The places that have given us such phenoms as Nirvana, Tortoise and Califone in the past in are making rather bold moves into the world music market – a trend that looks set to build in 2011. Chicago-based Thrill Jockey Records is about to release 'Sahel Folk,' by Malian singer-guitarist Sidi Touré, Indiana label Dead Oceans last year got great reviews for its 'Kigali Y' Izahabu,' by Rwanda trio the Good Ones (subject of an Around the World column last year), and Seattle's Sub Pop – arguably the biggest brand name in indie rock – is set for release number two from its new imprint Next Ambiance, following up the currently Grammy-nominated 'I Speak Fula,' by Mali's ngoni master Bassekou Kouyate (also a previous Around the World feature, and also a participant in the Afrocubism project) with 'Laru Beya,' by Honduran singer Aurelio Martinez (pictured).
Daring strategy to make such global embraces in an age of declining record business fortunes? Or foolhardy mission?
"In terms of business it makes no sense at all," says Bettina Richards. And she's one of the people behind this, as the head of Thrill Jockey, which she founded in 1992.
"I'm an embarrassing superfan," she says of the philosophy that has fueled the label from the beginning. "I go to a show and see something that blows me away and I have to go tell someone. When I got Sidi's record, I couldn't believe this had just come in the mail."
Sidi Touré, 'Bon Koum'
Of course, Richards figures there are a few other like-minded superfans out there – many of them your basic, run-of-the-mill Thrill Jockey fans.
"I cannot see where a person who's a great fan of Tortoise wouldn't immediately like this record," she says. "On the surface they're not alike. But when you get into the melodic structures, plenty of things in common. And I've always taken that approach when I put out a [free jazz saxophonist] Fred Anderson record. People who like music the way I like it are octopuses, searching in many directions at once. People who support my label are hard-core music addicts."
It's much the same for the other two labels.
"It's fun to take a chance on something different," says Dead Oceans co-owner Phil Waldorf. "Whether reissuing an old record no one's heard of or something like this a little outside our wheelhouse, hopefully a great record translates universally. I don't think there's any one type of person buying records on the label, but I do like to think that if you like the records we put out, this is not so far in left field that it's not something you can get into."
The Good Ones, 'Sara'
Sub Pop has also cultivated and courted an audience of eclectic tastes and adventurous spirits.
"They've expanded themselves over the years," says Jon Kertzer, who partnered with the company to form Next Ambiance. "Think about what they were established on – Nirvana, Mudhoney. And look now and there's Flight of the Conchords and David Cross in comedy, Daniel Martin Moore is more of a folk thing, and Iron & Wine and Fleet Foxes. It's a logical move to do this."
Still, at the root, each of these ventures came about quite organically, with neither grand strategy nor calculation involved.
Richards already had an interest and background in African culture. Her parents and sister used to live in Tanzania, and she'd been a big fan of a wide variety of African music for years, but says she needed to be "comfortable" with her judgment as to whether something was "good" or not. That got a boost from working with the band Extra Golden, a collaboration of American alt-rock veterans Ian Eagleson and Alex Minoff with several Kenyan musicians that grew out of Eagleson's time there working on a graduate project.
The Touré album's arrival on her desk came thanks to the label's reputation overseas.
"He recorded with a guy in France who happens to be a big fan of [the Thrill Jockey act] Radian, if you believe that," she says, noting that Radian might be the act on the label with the least relationship to anything resembling African music. "He convinced Side to send it to the label that put out Radion. So it came in the mail, out of the blue. I had not heard of him before, but fell in love and located one other recording that had been available before on Sterns Records."
This particular release is distinctive for its low-key approach. A series of acoustic duets with various other local artists, it was recorded in a casual setting.
"The more you learn about this recording in particular, the better it seems," she says. "It's so organic, the way they say in the courtyard, picked pears and picked songs. A beautiful record. I explored about Songhai music and about him, and if I can transfer that to a bunch of people, that's what it's about."
It's a similar enough story for Waldorf. Producer Ian Brennan approached him about releasing an album teaming a contemporary American artist with some African musicians, but Waldorf didn't think he could do anything with it. But then Brennan played him the Good Ones session he'd recorded on a porch while visiting Rwanda with his wife and mother, the latter's return to her native country after 30 years away.
"He said, 'Oh, well, you should check out this other thing I recorded," Waldorf says. "Didn't feel he was giving the pitch on it. And I was beating down his door – 'Let's talk about this record.' Didn't have commercial aspirations, but it immediately hit me over the head as something that would be fun and gratifying."
And Kertzer, a veteran of the music business in various capacities, has been hosting an African music show on Seattle radio station KEXP-FM for more than a decade. He and Sub Pop founder Jonathan Poneman – friends since before Sub Pop stared in the late '80s – have been talking about partnering for some world music releases for years, and finally the timing was right.
"We almost signed the Buena Vista Social Club before World Circuit signed with Nonesuch," he says of a proposed 1996 venture that was to be called World Pop. "So I get a chuckle when people say we're jumping on the world music bandwagon, like I'd just heard Vampire Weekend. I was playing in an Afrobeat band in the past, as well. And Jonathan's been a fan of it, too."
The second Next Ambiance release offers an intriguing cross-cultural and trans-oceanic vision. Martinez was a protégé of the late Andy Palacio (who died in 2008 at just 47), the prime mover of the modern movement to revive and renew the roots of the Garifuna – the descendants of slaves primarily along Central America's Caribbean coast. And for this album he offers music at once liltingly lovely and insistently fiery.
"This has been in the works for quite a while," says Kertzer of the album's release. "It was recorded almost a year ago with Ivan Duran, who did Palacio and [Martinez's earlier album] 'Garifuna Soul.' I had known about Aurelio, saw him play in 2008, and then I heard the record. Very interesting. Half the record was recorded in Dakar, Senegal. Youssou N'Dour sings on it and the Orchestra Baobab plays on a couple of tracks."
Good music, good audience and good intentions. But is that enough for good business? Well, they're all giving it good effort. Dead Oceans did a lot of market research and hired a radio promoter with world music experience; Sub Pop and Thrill Jockey have used publicity and marketing firms with the same expertise, though they also all have great confidence in their internal staff and structures to be able to get the most out of this. The biggest trick may be getting the artists in front of audiences. Touring, as with many of their acts, is the key, but the expenses, logistics and red tape of bringing artists from overseas presents particular challenges. Martinez may have an edge in that matter, as European distribution of the album is going through the UK-based, world music-oriented Real World label, with bookings already set for the firm's WOMAD festivals series in various locales. He's also set to precede the album release with performances Jan. 15 and 16 at the Getty Center in Los Angeles. Touré also has a few top bookings in the works, notably the prestigious world music series held in Thrill Jockey's hometown of Chicago every summer.
So ... trend? All see a growing dissatisfaction with mainstream music and the ever-easier access to music of any sort from any time or place helping cultivate an interest in a variety of sounds.
"Music these days is not as compartmentalized as it once was, at least from where I see it," says Waldorf. "Whether us or Sub Pop or Thrill Jockey, hopefully there's a curatorial aspect to it that music consumers enjoy."