There’s an actual birth date for what we currently call “world music” — June 29, 1987. A group of record label heads, managers and journalists met in London and decided to use this term in order to persuade record stores to devote floor space to the music they represented. World fusion used to happen organically in cities like Istanbul or along the Silk Road, but after 1987, there was a niche market created for it.
Today’s world fusion successes rely on participants having lived through generations of both woeful and brilliant experimentation to produce music that no longer feels contrived. Here are three trends in world music producing wonderful new hybrids.
Dance music around the world has become more intense and percussive over time. Complex West African traditional rhythms were once smoothed out by Western fusioneers but in a post-glitch universe, more people can deal with the world’s snakiest rhythms. With some music, all that’s required is a little tweak to bring out what’s already in the music to bring it to another level while not losing the special rhythmic or harmonic uniqueness that was always there.
Donso is a project from France that utilizes Mandé hunters’ rhythms as the basis for careful and subtle electronic programming. The electroacoustic qualities of the instruments would have been very difficult to achieve years ago. This is clearly not traditional music, but you can mix it with traditional music and it works brilliantly.
One of the biggest criticisms of world fusion is that it’s executed by more powerful, usually white Svengalis harvesting folkloric elements. However, there are a number of crosscultural music makers who take on those notions with fascinating results.
A Tribe Called Red is a group of Aboriginal DJs from Ottawa who are part of a worldwide movement of indigenous remixers. They incorporate everything from Brazilian music to dancehall to the weird Dutch-Latino hybrid of moombahton in their music, and pepper it with ironic or parodic uses of pop culture representations of Indians. They are part-video artists, part-recording artists and full-time party starters who always come with a heavy social subtext. They release free tracks with a creative process and raison d’etre miles away from the polished albums once expected of world music artists. They’ve proven there’s more than one curatorial perspective to world music.
[Listen to Electric Pow Wow Drum by A Tribe Called Red.]
Tinariwen sounds like a classic rock band; they even look like rock stars. Over the decades these Tuareg rebels have soaked up the sounds of everything from traditional song forms to the Rolling Stones, Phil Collins and Led Zeppelin. Arena-ready hooks are second nature to them, and they’ve got definable rock ’n’ roll cool — enough to get them signed to iconoclastic label Anti-, which specializes in maverick artists regardless of genre. Tinariwen’s inverse is Toubab Krewe, who bring staggering knowledge of West African rhythms to the jam band circuit from their college town base in Asheville, N.C., but are unpretentious and comfortable in their non-Africanness in a way Vampire Weekend can’t pull off.
The biggest change over the past 25 years of world music has been that it’s easier for artists to express nuanced ideas. They don’t need a label or distribution to tailor their ideas to commercial viability. What labels exist for world music have had to sharpen their focus and allocate their resources more effectively to help their artists create music of substance. Any promise of big money in world music has evaporated — what’s left is people interested in (and just as importantly experienced in) cross cultural musical experiments motivated not by a sense of exotic exploration but by hard-won knowledge about disparate forms and sounds around the world and around our own neighbourhoods.
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