Pop Playground
World Music : The Forgotten Genre

tom Ze is an intriguing character. At first glance, his 1973 Todos Os Olhos album cover seems to feature a fairly typical psychedelic image of the time—a disembodied spherical eye/planet floating in a cosmic void. After the album spent months on the shelves and in the windows of record shops throughout his home country, the Brazilian iconoclast revealed that the image was in fact a close-up photograph of his anus with a marble inserted into it.

Childish? I beg to differ. Throwing up at airports and swearing on pre-watershed TV is childish. This post-modern stunt, carried out years before the Sex Pistols were even a stye in Malcolm McClaren's eye, has a Dadaist resonance and paradoxical sophistication way beyond the wit and inventiveness of most of our pop stars. On one level it was just a mischievous musician mooning at the Brazilian Office of Censorship, but on another, it vividly demonstrated that if you need to be told that an image is obscene before you can react to it appropriately then surely something is wrong. Either way, it did the trick. Tom's career in Brazil was instantly scuppered and it was nearly two decades before he was rescued from obscurity by David Byrne. He's now in his late sixties and continues to record and perform his dissonant yet catchy songs.

The misadventures of Ze are light-years away from what most people perceive World Music to be—interchangeable African divas, melodic intertwining guitars and tasteful productions. Yet World Music isn't even a genre as you would normally define it. More a clumsy amorphous label required by a culturally arrogant and wilfully ignorant music business so they can put a large chunk of the planet's music into a few racks in the corner of their megastores next to Folk. There's no proactive desire to sell the stuff, just a politically correct obligation to have it there in case someone happens along who wants a CD of French accordion music to put them in the right mood for flying to Paris at the weekend.

So why is this? Well it's a three-way chicken-and-egg situation. Which came first—the indifference of the major labels, the radio stations or the UK's music buying public?

We've all risen above the tired old panpipes and Kaftans cliché—every one of us being the careful owner of at least a couple of African compilations and a Bebel Gilberto CD for late night listening. So I'm probably preaching at least to the semi-converted. But nevertheless you're not buying this stuff! In the UK, World isn't even on the map as far as sales go. This is how things look according to recent statistics published in The Guardian:

32.4% Pop
25.9% Rock
13.3% Dance
8.5% R&B;
4% Classical
1.1% Folk
1% Jazz

And why should you be buying it when you’re not hearing it? You've made that mistake before—seen a CD with a tastefully cheerful illustration of ethnic trendies dancing in a colourful market square—you've got it home and it's cheesy, badly produced rubbish.

But try finding a UK radio station that broadcasts music from a country that doesn't begins with a U and end with a K or an SA. Nationally, only Radio 3 has dipped its toes into the warm waters of World and the results are decidedly mixed. Late Junction (10.15 weekdays), World Routes (3.00pm Saturday) and Andy Kershaw (10.15pm Sunday) all have their particular faults that boil down to one basic issue: most of the broadcasts simply perpetuate the myth that World Music is today's Easy Listening. Carefully tailored to be pleasant and unobtrusive. Each show serves its purpose, but only scrapes the surface of what's out there.

So where does that leave us? Nowhere nationally, but there is Charlie Gillett's two hour weekly show on BBC London (8.00pm Saturday), which thankfully is now available on the Internet. Gillett broadcasts one or two old Blues or Soul classics each week to break in the uninitiated or create interesting juxtapositions between the familiar and the unfamiliar, depending on your perspective. His taste is superlative, the show is superb, yet I've not seen this award winning show recommended or reviewed in the press for years. It's just there, making its listeners feel like members of a privileged secret society when they tune in each week. When I asked the man himself why he isn't on a national radio station, he replied philosophically "I haven't been asked". And because World only has the support of two mainstream radio stations—each with only about 1% of the UK audience share—the record companies won't invest.

Radio 2 is the obvious home for World, though. With its 15% audience share, it could slowly wake up the nation's ears. World's myriad cutting-edge but accessible styles would sit comfortably alongside the station's regular output of quality Rock, R&B; and Dance. Especially considering its already strong influence on artist’s like Beyonce and Missy Elliot, the latter of which crucially utilized a sampled toombi (an Indian single stringed banjo-like instrument) riff to her seminal “Get Ur Freak On”.

This kind of semi-innocent cultural appropriation, which countless other Western musicians have indulged in over the decades, functions as a way to spice-up ailing musical formulas. But is this the only way we can digest new sounds and grooves—when they are cunningly slipped past us as part of a catchy pop tune?

I prefer to think that if there was more exposure to World then it would be embraced as we have always embraced every twist and turn of American, Jamaican and British pop. The media's latest archetype, Fifty Quid Man, would soon be hooked on exotic new artists with hard to pronounce names, who've taken the guitar, bass and drums constituents of the music he's familiar with, and warped and twisted them into something new. If Radio 2, say, threw him some tasty morsels of Brazilian Hip Hop amongst his regular roast beef and Yorkshire pudding diet of Rock and Jazz, he'd soon realise how bored he'd become with repurchasing old favourites on CD or downloading new favourites—which sound like the old favourites—for his precious Ipod.

I know this would come to pass because I am Fifty Quid Man—well, the poorer cousin of Fifty Quid Man, Fifteen Quid Man. My cultural DNA is the same. I just don't have the dosh to indulge my addictions to quite the same degree. Rock used to be my music of choice, before things turned bad in the 80's. Luckily, I was introduced to African music—tough and sinuous, bright and melodic, and it saved my ears. This was a music that didn't histrionically wallow in angst and pseudo-anger the way so much Rock did. It dealt with the concerns of corrupt governments, the ravages of AIDS and the omnipresence of poverty. Its prime movers—Thomas Mapfumo, Fela Kuti and Hugh Masekela—had this stuff on their doorsteps. They weren't just protesting about it from the warm dead air of a London recording studio. African music was something real in a decade of mind-numbing artifice

Since then, every few years the record companies spotlight another fresh sound (or fresh to us) which then gradually fades away; whether it's an LA bluesman traveling to a faraway land and 'discovering' an outstanding Malian guitarist to hitch his Stratocaster to (Talking Timbuktu) or a revered German Art-house director 'discovering' a group of veteran Cuban musicians and making a film about them (Buena Vista Social Club). Both of these projects involved the best intentions of guitarist and producer Ry Cooder. But the ever-predictable record companies cash in on a perceived 'new market' and the result is always the same—saturation followed by satiety. The whole country goes Cuba crazy for two months and then a deluge of sub-standard Cuban compilations kills off our appetite. We are being condescended to by a music industry that for some reason thinks we can only take one foreign invasion at a time. With a strong radio presence, this problem would be solved: there would a new sound to get into every few months rather than every few years.

So how about it Radio 2? One evening show a week to begin with to test the waters? Charlie Gillett presenting? You'll never look back, Fifty Quid Man will have a new trough to feed at, and the record companies will have a vast new market to exploit.

By: Howard Male
Published on: 2004-08-25
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