the problem with world music

World Music - a vague term that I hate, but I will use in this post to refer to folkloric ethnic music from a third world country, or a cross between that music and some form of western music.

In the mid 80's, the western listening audience (the U.S. and Europe) became more aware and interested in world music than they had been previously (maybethey were as enthusiastic during the bossa nova craze of the early 60's?)
In any case, the 80's surge of awareness was probably fueled by a handful of very successful pop artists having done records incorporating various world music elements. The most obvious being Paul Simon's Graceland, followed by Peter Gabriel's SO, not a world pop record at all, but that's another story. Suffice it to say the music was all of a sudden quasi-hot, and it was a heady time for young musicians who had been into those forms for years already. The air was ripe with possibility.

Unfortunately, the labels weren't smart enough to capitalize on it. Some tried but they fucked it all up. Here's how.


Rather than commissioning projects that would have beenreallyinteresting and appealing to western ears, they did silly shit like hire producers with no knowledge of the music or rhythm to do records with popular African, Arabic or what-have-you singers. Everyone was myopic - the singers thought they might have a giant hit (like graceland). I don't know what the producers were thinking - probably nothing as most of them don't think; and the labels, in typical fashion, had their dangerous half number-crunching/half creative heads on - without any thought as to what was resonant for the pop audience about traditional world music.
THE RHYTHM and SINGING, folks. NOT the songwriting, harmony, melody or language - for god's sake, it had to be in ENGLISH to be a worldwide hit in those days. didn't anybody sitting around a walnut table in midtown or london figure that out?
It's so simple - the juicy part of American popular music comes from European classical harmony and melody, and the British literary verse tradition - poetry, folk songs and such. I'm not saying that the rhythmic component of American music is uninteresting, but I am saying that it's not nearly as developed and juicy as the rhythmic component of African folkloric music. Very few musicologists or serious music fans would argue with me on that. And oh, believe or not folks, a large portion of the public actually does have pretty sophisticated taste in music, as hard as it may seem to believe - witness miles davis, count basie, paul simon, the beatles, etc etc etc.
So, many of the so-called world music records that came out on big labels were watered down and uninteresting because,

they combined the least interesting parts of the ethnic style at hand, and the least interesting parts of the American style at hand, discarding the juicy parts of both.

this is no surprise, the vast majority of record producers being severely lacking in musical skills or knowledge. (and to be fair, the vast majority of musicians being severely lacking in production skills, but that's for another blog)

I can see it in my head - the producer's sitting there going, "OK Souleymane, whaddya got?"
Souleymane says, "I have this traditional griot song about a great warrior. he gets up one morning and does his laundry. then he goes to the corner store for a bag of rice. then he gets mad at one of his concubines and smacks her around. then he feels sorry about it, then he goes to a party, then he goes home and goes to sleep. he was a great man. one day he gets killed."

For the most part, they don't write songs in the british literary-verse-poetic tradition in the third world. They write lyrics conversationally, there is often no hook, they are most often through-composed with no repeating central theme or chorus. Don't believe me? Read the english translations of lyrics in the liner notes of some an African records, if you can find some. You'll think, "what the f*ck?"

So now our producer, let's call him Hyclef, he's sitting there with a deer in the headlights look. he says, "Well Souleymane, what does it sound like?" and Souleymane sings it, for about 15 minutes - it doesn't repeat, and it sounds like an improvised jam - the melody meandering all over the place.

I was once at a salif keita show, and there was a female griot singer also from Mali opening. She starts up one of those 15 minute riff filled pieces about a warrior king or some other topic that western audiences don't give a toss about. An obviously West African guy next to me starts singing along - WITH EVERY WORD, VOCAL INFLECTION AND TURN OF PHRASE. I finally ask him how the heck he knows exactly what she's gonna sing - assuming that the melody is mostly improvised. he says, "That's how the song goes." !!!!!!!!!!!

So Hyclef doesn't have much of a choice.
A. He can't write to start with - being a guy who normally just gets a track up and bumpin, then gets a rapper to do a couple of verses and some riffaholic chick go ooooh, aahhhh, baby I wanna get wit' you.
B. Even if he could write, Souleymane would probably sound funny trying to sing what Hyclef would write.
C. He hasn't a clue what Souleymane's music is all about rhythmically. It's likely he hasn't really listened to much of it, and he doesn't have the musical acumen or training to dissect it rhythmically or melodically.

So what does he do? YOU GUESSED IT - what he always does; gets a track up and bumpin, then he tells Souleymane "sing some of that crazy stuff you do, and we'll get some girls in to do someoohhhhs, and aahhhhs, but we gotta leave out thebaby I wanna get wit' you part."

Course the track is rhythmically pedestrian compared to Souleymane's usual fare; the harmonic structure is static (even if Hyclef had the chops to write a song with nice harmonic movement, Souleymane has no idea how to sing to something like that); The melody (Souleymane's part anyway) is not repetitive and melodic enough for western ears.

Congratulations, you've made a completely uninteresting record! Neutering it of cool ethnic rhythms, beautiful European and/or convincing blues melodies, nice harmonic structures, and even the raw street emotion ofbaby I wanna get wit' you.

the real problem is that it's pastiche. (a term applied to DJ style modern music production by my good friend the amazing musician and thinker Paul Livant). Greatness is not achieved by throwing a bunch of things together helter skelter. They're has to be an overriding concept, backed by knowledge and skills. This is what most DJs do not have when they produce records.
There is no substitute for musical training, skills and experience (but I don't necessarily mean formal university musical training - that is on probation as far as I'm concerned; more on that in another blog entry.)

Back to the subject at hand - We've now seen why world-pop music funded by the label system failed to get a foothold. As far as I know, the last time a record that could be genuinely be called world-pop got play on pop radio was Graceland, in '84 or '85. Why was it so successful? Well, firstly cause it was Paul Simon, but just as important was the fact that Paul was as serious and hard-working about applying his method to the Graceland record as he had ever been on any of his other records. He clearly spent time ingesting the music at hand, and being a great musician and arranger, he picked and chose well and made great pop music with world influences, WITHOUT watering down either side of the equation.

I played a few cuts from my MBALAFUNK CD for him when on tour in 2001. His comments were very succinct.

him: "nice, but it has no future."
me: "why not?"
him: "Afro-pop music didn't catch on after I laid the groundwork with Graceland. Now it's too late. It's moment has passed."


Fast forward to the present - world music in America has mainly become a place where mediocre people find a way to make a living in the music business. They can't write a song or really play, so they get a digeridoo, a chick singer and a drum machine, work hard at the promotion side and end up with a batch of college and performing arts center gigs every year. totally LAME.

The other thing that happens is things being labeled world-music that are about as world as Barak Obama. in other words, ethnic only in name - an R+B band with some guest Africans on their record. I'm not saying it can't be good music, I'm saying that if the harmony, melody, rhythm, language and lyrics are all familiar sounding traditional American structures, it doesn't become world music when you add kora or throat singing - at least not by my definition.

2 days later - I forwarded the above post to Paul Livant, and he had this to say about it:

Well of course I agree with what you say whole heartedly,( and BTW thank you for the high praise). The people you describe are not primarily interested in promoting the particular ethnic music they dabble in but are instead trying to apply a little exotic color to their same old shit. That's why they usually don't know that much about the other artists music because they are generally focused on how to use surface elements to repackage what they do know about. It's like a chef who has become bored with making cheese burgers and discovers a sauce from Africa which they pour all over the burger and market it as some new food. For it to be any good much less something new there has to be some organic connection between the the elements which requires more depth of knowledge about the two traditions.

I think that post Hip Hop production techniques have encouraged this way of thinking because in track construction any thing can be used as color, even things the producer doesn't understand fully. A Mahler symphony can be combinedwith a Tibetan throat singer and the whole thing is given the illusion of hanging together because the beat continues through both. In the past to make this music you would have had to get symphonic musicians, and Tibetian monks together with a rhythm section and work on how to make music together...a process which could only work if everyone had some depth of knowledge about each other's process.


Graham Hawthorne 2012