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Life as Style

Putting the “world” in the music

American consumers are in the throes of a turgid love affair with multiculturalism. Having depleted our domestic cultural resources, we turn our jaded gaze elsewhere, looking for ever more exotic excitements, ever more picturesque pastimes. Signs of the illicit relationship crop up in films like Mississippi Masala, and Benetton advertisements, but especially in cultural commodities like recorded music.

World music is essentially a new name for an old product, or an old product concept. Non-Anglic music has always been relatively accessible to the specialized record buyer, but only recently has it been sold under the heading of “world,” which links it to multicultural sensibilities and allows it to be marketed as a component of the new wave of globalcentricity. But the genre has been introduced with a unique and interesting rhetoric, with publicity that promises to erase national boundaries and unite diverse cultures. Advertisements use lines like “Music admits to no borders, needs no passport,” and present the product as a “celebration of diversity within our human unity.” Consumers are encouraged to purchase their way to new cultural horizons, to establish a link with some distant corner of the planet by owning a small part of it as a piece in the puzzle of global understanding.

Yet, like any puzzle piece, the world music artifact is meaningless unless placed in close association with similarly constructed objects. In order for the globe to take shape, the multicultural consumer must acquire many, many artifacts. In order to round out their world-knowledge, consumers are encouraged to enter the genre as a whole, to sample frequently from the rich cultural smorgasbord provided by modern technology, and to learn from that sampling a fierce appetite for the unfamiliar.

“World music” lumps together disparate cultures in a manner that is markedly insensitive to the world’s very real cultural boundaries.

In this respect world music acts upon older colonial patterns, like the spice or ivory trades, to scavenge new and unfamiliar commodities for sale in a marketplace obsessed with exoticism. But this is a new strain of exoticism, driven not merely by greed, but by the guilty impulses of a dominant culture towards the subaltern, the “world” that is being ignored and threatened by the expansion of Western ways. Thus world music can pretend to be reversing the flow of information from the periphery back to the core, liberating the unheard voices of far-flung cultures. Its marginal status allows it to be sold as the antidote to global disunity; it is the means by which Western consumers can shed their narrow-minded cultural habits and and buy into a sphere of greater understanding. Without the allure of this marginalism, world music would lose its primary selling point, its means of cultural entry into the bourgeois home market: the genre thrives by exploiting the belief of Anglic consumers that they are missing out on something—the “world,” in fact —and, as with any other lacking, that they need to get some, soon.

The genre’s concept of the “world” is troublesome. First, the idea of a “world” music that is specifically exclusive to Anglic forms tends to distance us from the rest of the globe and create separate spheres of Anglic and non-Anglic existence. It summons up that favorite fantasy division between the civilized, overrepresented culture of America and Britain, and the bold, untamed “world” of diverse music from far-flung points on the globe, reinforcing the “us” vs. “them” division that has so often been the stock in trade of a dominant culture. Even though British and American consumers are made to feel a sense of lack which they need the “world” to fill, they are still established as being in a position to acquire it, and thus as the dominant party in the relationship. Secondly, “world music” lumps together disparate cultures in a manner that is markedly insensitive to the world’s very real cultural boundaries. Such unconcern is typical of imperial powers; the big powers have mapped and remapped the world countless times, regardless of what the locals feel about it. World music operates in a similar fashion, redrawing a global map in which far-flung musics harmoniously exist within one boundaried and shrink-wrapped “world” for the convenience of Anglic consumers.

Like so many of today’s rebel consumer goods, world music emerged from the good intentions of an actual committed radical. Among the earliest companies to produce what were then called “ethnographic recordings” was the label Folkways, a shoestring operation that recorded everything from Javanese gamelon to rural American blues. Folkways was founded by Moses Asch, a folksy, depression-era radical who strove to bridge gaps between far-flung cultures, largely from a commitment to socialist internationalism. Eschewing the standard marketing and packaging ploys of the music industry, Asch placed more emphasis on getting the records to the public over making any sort of a profit. Asch’s efforts were crucial to the development of world music; the proliferation of Folkways records in public libraries has been cited by many of today’s world music gurus as having been their first encounter with non-Western music.

Folkways was followed by the Explorer series on the Nonesuch label. Nonesuch improved upon the concept of ethnographic recording by seeking out (“exploring”) vast new musical realms to record, and by playing up the intrepid activities of their staff of recording engineers (“explorers”). The label emphasized the names of the explorer-technicians above those of the performers on their catalog of recordings, making people like Robert Brown and David Lewiston international music “stars” for their ability to find suitable material and press a record button. Nonetheless, the Nonesuch Explorer series was still too academic to earn it a substantial following within the bourgeois marketplace, where tastes run towards product that is more flamboyantly exotic.

World music as we know it today may still use the structure of this older ethnographic model, but it drops the academic presentation. Instead it employs the star system of traditional “ethnic” recordings (the Brazilian Bossa Nova of the early sixties, the sitars of the late sixties), and makes sure the star and the music are presented cautiously to middle class America; it tries carefully to avoid fadism by spreading itself evenly amongst a variety of cultural product; and it encourages the consumer to participate in its entire product line as the only real means of reaching the “world,” and thus, as the sole means of salvation from a heritage steeped in cultural imperialism.

Things began to change in the early eighties. Multicultural experimentation by Western rock stars like David Byrne and Peter Gabriel got the ball rolling, and Paul Simon made the concept sell with his 1986 LP Graceland. (Oddly enough, another mid eighties global venture, the Band Aid/USA for Africa project, was comprised almost entirely of Western performers performing Western music. After proclaiming “We are the world” in 1985, the stars’ own record companies decided that, for purposes of marketing, the “world” consists of everything but them.) Labels began to experiment with different releases and were surprised at the success of LPs by artists such as the Bulgarian State Radio and Television Female Vocal Choir (Le Mystere des Voix Bulgares) and Israeli pop star Ofra Haza (Yemenite Songs). By the end of the 1980’s, a host of labels, new and old, were joining in the act, and in May of 1990, Billboard magazine introduced its world music chart, thus giving the format the marketplace credibility it needed to further establish itself as a the viable commodity it was becoming.

“The music is only chosen by us if we dig it personally!”

Although revenues were small at first, world music began to pick up quickly in the American market as late eighties multicultural fervor heated up. Retail outlets saw sales increase dramatically: World music was Tower Records’ twelfth largest selling genre in 1989, jumping to number five in 1990. Distributors experienced tremendous growth in the amount of product they were able to ship: the New York-based distributor World Music Institute reports that the quantity of units sold tripled between 1989 and 1990. The music industry began to make heavy promotional efforts: tours, gimmicks, and advertising for a genre that once had the smallest of promotional budgets. In 1990, the New Music Seminar, one of the largest annual industry gatherings, billed itself as “A Global Affair,” and featured dozens of panels and performances highlighting the valuable talent pool offered by non-Anglic performers.

One of the first labels to offer nothing but World music, Globestyle Records, was started in 1985 by a London-based owner of a record label specializing in reissues of vintage American rhythm & blues. Although the label began by licensing already-recorded product from labels in other nations, it soon entered the field on its own, taking digital recording technology to underrecorded nations like Madagascar and Zanzibar, and returning with product that was quickly gobbled up by Western audiences. Under the slogan “Worldwide—Your Guide,” Globestyle presented itself as an aural tourist agency, ready to take the listener on sonic tours of distant lands and promising that “the music is only chosen by us if we dig it personally!” The label’s Western hip was thus employed to allay any residual fears of the unknown that the consumer might harbor.

The focus of the label is betrayed by its name, “Globestyle,” a tag which implies the fashionableness of the product it delivers, sort of a haute couture for multiculturalism. In this case, the “style” delivered is attached to the globe, but only to that part of it that is non-Anglic. Repressed, over-civilized Anglic music just doesn’t cut it in the realm of “globe style”; sitting out as the unhip wallflower while good times are enjoyed by all that are willing to keep up with the fashion, the exciting and diverse “globe style.” The fun is not completely inaccessible, however, for although Globestyle music cannot be created by Anglic nations, it can be purchased by them, to have and to hold for subsequent indulgence.

The “style” in the name is important for another reason as well. Globestyle was one of the first labels to adopt polished marketing techniques to a product that had always been sold in a fairly bland wrapper. Globestyle burst upon the (then-named) international music scene with a series of brightly colored, graphically interesting releases with clever liberationist titles like Non Stop Non Stop and Full Steam Ahead, and organized their releases in series like “The Accordions that Shook the World.” With its fresh new look, Globestyle immediately stood out from the bulk of ethnographic labels, the majority of which were still sold in plain, academic-looking sleeves and bore uninteresting, explanatory titles like Javanese Court Gamelon.

Globestyle also invented a version of the star system for their recordings. Some of Globestyle’s artists were already pop stars in their native countries, as was Ofra Haza in Israel, but others, from less culturally industrialized nations, were presented in a decidedly Western mode in which they were described as “legendary” or “classic,” adjectives which seem more fitted to aging rock stars than skilled practitioners of a localized cultural form. The label also offered the first world music compilation albums, single LPs that spanned vast ethnic ranges and represented the “world” as the company understood it.

The Globestyle style paid off, and soon the label found that they had a number of minor hits, including the abovementioned Yemenite Songs, a record that enjoyed a substantial boost in sales after being used by British DJ Coldcut in his remix of Eric B and Rakim’s “Paid in Full.” Citing its uncanny newfound popularity in the liner notes to a 1987 release, the label proclaimed that “Globestyle boldly goes where Paul Simon later treads,” a comment that only begins to hint at the importance they have had in setting the tone for the current world music market sector.

But the beats on World Beat records are not those of the world. Rather, they are the familiar electronic sounds of the West.

Following Globestyle’s success, the U.S. folk and reggae label Shanachie began to aggressively expand into the world music market with the same sort of panache. Under the heading “World Beat/Ethno Pop,” Shanachie tied vastly different musical styles together in a single line, a “world,” into which a consumer could enter just by purchasing the right product. The American label’s major stylistic contribution has been its heavy promotion of the concept of “world beat,” a type of music that, because of its (purported) irresistible rhythmic properties, was supposed to be able to erase global boundaries and unite the world as one uninhibited dancing mass. The liner notes of one Shanachie release explained that “World Beat is a fascinating new mechanism which enables traditional music to again play the prominent role it historically has had in rejuvenating the world’s popular music.” The company’s recording process, it continued, “injects [ethnic music] with the intensity and urgency of Western pop, using the full palette of contemporary instruments and state of the art recording techniques.” World Beat is a way of “fixing” or improving ethnic music to make it more appealing to a Western audience. It is a beat-heavy rhetoric that is not only designed to inspire the listeners to dance, but to spend as well.

But the beats on World Beat records are not those of the world. Rather, they are the familiar electronic sounds of the West, serving now as rhythmic constructions on which to hang those exotic non-Anglic instrumental and vocal passages. The power of the beat is supposed to override performance and language barriers, driving the music home to a Western audience often confused by the lyrics or the unusual melodic construction of the song. American consumerism has always thrived on notions of liberation and the exotic, and with its World Beat concept, Shanachie quickly became the major player in the American world music market.

Perhaps one of the best (or worst, as the case may be) examples of the world beat approach is Aswan Batish, master of the sitar-powered dance groove. With song titles like “Bombay Boogie” and “New Delhi Vice,” Batish uses simple preprogrammed drum tracks to provide a rhythmic base over which he weaves lines of traditional Indian music. As presented by Shanachie, Batish’s music brings the old and the new worlds together, and takes Indian classical music forward into the frontiers of global culture. When viewed without the rhetoric, however, the music comes across as simplistic, pandering, and patently disrespectful of Indian culture. In a 1988 tour supporting his first U.S. release, Batish opened up a series of concerts for the band Savage Republic by presenting himself as a bungling buffoon willing to poke fun at his own culture for the sake of a joke. He clowned around for the audience, giggling at his own cleverness for coming up with song titles like “Sitar Trek” for his toe-tapping talas. In minstrel fashion, he parodied his own cultural heritage for the sake of entertaining a Western audience.

With a somewhat more carefully constructed model of global culture, Real World records was founded by pop star Peter Gabriel and music promoter Thomas Brooman, who were also the co-founders of WOMAD (World of Music Arts and Dance), a British-based organization that spent a good part of the eighties putting together a series of multicultural festivals and ethnographic compilation albums. With Real World, Gabriel and Brooman have moved out of the underfunded realm of the arts, and into the fast track of the music industry. Unlike the previous WOMAD recorded ventures, Real World receives financial and distribution help from Warner Communications, and records most of its material in a state-of-the-art studio equipped with the latest digital technology.

Like “Globestyle,” the words “Real World” exclude Anglic contribution, yet articulate a desire to participate by promising all that is lacking from the Anglic experience. It offers the “real world” as its product, a world that includes music from places like Pakistan, Zaire, and Finland (to name only a few), but not England and America, countries apart from the “real,” the wild untamed frontier of unheard music. As ever, though, the frontier exists to be settled, and any Western consumer can stake his claim simply by purchasing a Real World record, escaping the falseness of civilization by voyaging into the “real” of the rest of the “world.”

Unlike other labels, most of the artists on Real World were not recorded in the field, but in Gabriel’s rural British studio.

As Euro-American consumers are invited to do vicariously, Western performers occasionally venture into the “real world” of ethnic musics. Real World released Peter Gabriel’s Passion, for example, a record which consists of world music samples electronically reprocessed by the pop star. Dipping into the vast array of cultural product to which he has access, Gabriel masks it electronically to hide its origin, and weaves it together into a product that he labels as his own. Through this process, Gabriel cloaks his Anglicity in righteous multiculturalism, and admits himself to the ranks of artists in the “real world.” Moving beyond older techniques of stylistic borrowing practiced by artists like Paul Simon and David Byrne, Gabriel employs digital technology to enter into a new era of cultural cooptation. Rather than simply mimic their style, he digitally distills their essence, and recombines it in a way that will be more pleasing to NATO audiences.

Likewise, Gabriel’s supposed ventures into the frontiers of reality are not entirely representative of the world to which they proclaim allegiance. Unlike other labels, most of the artists on Real World were not recorded in the field, but in Gabriel’s rural British studio, where state of the art technology and modern production techniques simulate the “real” within the false.

More legitimate in its technology, yet no less ambitiously named, Rykodisc’s World series features the recording skills of Mickey Hart, best known as the drummer for the shitty rock group the Grateful Dead. In 1988, Rykodisc agreed to release works featuring Hart, an amateur musicologist, and the various artists he had recorded over the years, musicians ranging from the Tibetan choir of the Gyoto Monks to the Sudanese oud player, Hamza El Din. Speaking on his motivation for recording such stuff, Hart says that, “My greatest thrill was to listen … just to sit there in my studio, with my speakers, and the Nagra, sipping a little cognac …”

Apart from indulging his armchair tourism, Hart and Rykodisc attempt to present the “world” (in this case the “real” is understood) to the willing consumer, but their world is a very small one indeed, with only Hart’s ears determining its boundaries. Like the other world music labels, the Rykodisc series centers its efforts around the work of one Westerner of widely recognized hipness and the aural artifacts he has collected over the years. In keeping with its commodity-based perception of the world, Rykodisc’s series is more of a tour through the library of an aging rock star than it is a representative sampling of a “world,” real or otherwise.

As with Gabriel’s label, Hart’s own musical work comprises a certain percentage of the Rykodisc releases. Like Gabriel, Hart created a fantasy world of non-Anglic culture into which only he and his fans were privileged to enter. Such a situation worked to Hart’s advantage, giving his music a new prominence and greater credibility when collected together with the work of a select body of world-renowned masters. As a result Hart enjoyed a tremendous wave of popularity: great sales of his book Drumming at the Edge of Magic (Dude! That is so wild! I wish Jim Morrison could read it!) and companion CD At the Edge, as well as sold out tour dates of Planet Drum, an ensemble which featured a cross-cultural assortment of percussionists performing under Hart’s guidance. The World series has been more than just culturally successful, it has been financially so, in ways that Hart had never been able to achieve until he associated himself with an exotic blend of non-Anglic performers.

This sort of cultural cooptation is nothing new. Even before Paul Simon and David Byrne lesser historical agents like wars, the slave trade, and international commerce carried instruments like the lute, banjo, and bagpipe all over the globe. Composers like Dvorak, Cage, and Satie openly borrowed cultural forms for reincorporation in their music, and many of today’s “standard” musical forms—jazz, rock, and blues—are the products of extensive cross-cultural breeding.

World music is different because of the putative internationalist idealism of its promoters and consumers. But under its banner, people like Hart and Gabriel have emerged as nothing more than just a new incarnation of the economically driven explorer, the sort of rough and rugged type who is able to make the difficult journey to distant lands and return with new treasures for sale in the home markets. These world music merchants do more than just borrow from other cultures; they do the traveling, find all-new sounds, and truss them up with modern recording technology. Following in the tradition of Marco Polo, Walter Raleigh, and Christopher Columbus, these new imperial merchants venture into uncharted cultural territory and establish the trading posts for cultural export. All to indulge Western fantasies of exotic “native” peoples in touch with the primal rhythms of the earth, to provide consumers with musical trophies of their enlightenment.