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Why "World Music" Doesn't Mean Anything Anymore: What I Learned at APAP

by Carol Cooper

If you ever had any doubts about whether the global pop promotion game was an intellectual enterprise as well as an entrepreneurial movement, this year's 10th pairing of NYC's annual Global Fest with the yearly Association of Professional Arts Presenters' conference would set you straight.

APAP first emerged (as the Association of College and University Concert Managers) in the late 1950s out of a small, visionary network of college arts programmers who wanted to increase and diversify the kinds of cultural enrichment to which mainstream America had access. Being a college-based organization during the red-baiting '50s meant this group was also aware of the political ramifications of promoting every type of music, dance and theater as equal in social value.

As organization membership grew to include commercial venues, community non-profit theaters, and foreign governments (as well as professional managers, booking agents and touring companies), its national agenda expanded to effecting multilateral improvements in the way all performing arts got exposure. They became expert at strategic advocacy, professional development, civic engagement, and resource sharing. In short, APAP comprises one kick-ass bunch of creative idealists, and has been recruiting more for over six decades.

World music in particular began to benefit from APAP's curatorial approach during the 1960s, when it was initially marketed alongside American folk music. Later it was affiliated with fusion jazz, only to emerge--like reggae did in the 1980s--as crossover pop by infiltrating dance-oriented rock and hip hop trends. "World music" as it's own marketing category then proceeded to struggle alongside new wave and rap for most of the '80s and '90s until the internet initiated huge changes in the distribution, archiving and consumption of pop music. This brought a strange and unexpected parity to all genres of music. Today, all music inhabits niche categories with the same basic access to potential consumers. YouTube, iTunes, Sound Cloud, and CD Baby have leveled the pop music playing field like never before.

Assigning musicians to stereotypical genres seems all but irrelevant now when Rihanna and Beyonce spend much of their time sounding like Jamaican dancehall artists, the Belgian alt-rocker Gotye records an American radio hit reminiscent of vintage Manu Chao, and the year's biggest crossover story is a K-Pop electronic dance number sung in Korean. Last week APAP devoted a special two-day educational track to the rising competitive profile of Global Pop. Conference rooms at the Hilton were filled with that portion of APAP's national and international membership whose future success in this arena depends on mastering the synergistic use of a broad spectrum of online content distribution and social networking tools.

Joe's Pub Director and current co-producer of Global Fest Shanta Thake has some interesting things to say about the past decade of innovation for the Category Formerly Known as World Beat. First she credits Emmanuel Moret, a director of music and cultural services at the French Embassy, with most of the bar-raising diversity of Global Fest's initial offerings.

"Global Fest was in part conceived with Emmanuel," says Thake. "He has always been a huge supporter, and part of that support is that we really look at the diaspora of French artists from around the world. Lucky for us the French were everywhere, so it hasn't really been limiting in terms of our programming scope. They have a great cultural services organization that's still thriving and willing to fly performing artists back and forth to create cultural dialogue. Which is increasingly hard to find."

But Thake is quick to point out that tightening purse-strings helped make Global Fest pay more attention to multi-cultural, multilingual music which is native to, yet still marginalized in, the USA. Hawaiian, Native American, Puerto Rican, Tejano, Cajun and Creole musicians were already in the U.S. preserving endangered traditions that qualified as "world music" and deserved the economic stimulation Global Fest might provide. "when it became hard to bringing big groups from Hungary without governmental support," Thake remembers, "It allowed us to look inward and to highlight artists from New Orleans since Katrina . . . as well as world music bands that are [already] based in New York."

Widespread economic contraction has been an ongoing concern of Global Fest and its APAP-affiliated partners for at least the past four years. But this concern never stops a torrent of hopeful performers from flooding Manhattan the week APAP's conference is in town. Besides Global Fest, APAP members attend dozens more privately publicized international showcases for dance troupes, theater ensembles and musical acts which are hosted throughout the city.

Canada's Mundial Montreal replicated the Global Fest idea at both Drom and The Living Room this past weekend, in part to lure patrons to its own world music conference next November. Canada, with it's own booming multicultural music scene, has seen the eclectic future of pop and is betting on a fascinating array of Native Canadian, West Indian, African and French Canadian hybrids.

Kobo Town, a Canadian neo-kaiso band led by Trinidadian emigre Drew Gonsalves, brings Neil Young's angst and Jerry Dammers's instincts to traditional calypso themes. His upcoming Cumbancha release is a pithy combination of social commentary, dubwise soca, and calypsonian wit. The title: "Jumbie in the Jukebox" is emblematic not only of Drew's personal conviction that ancient multi-ethnic spirits steer his songwriting, but also the history haunted state of pop music in general.

Asked if he thinks it is possible to reinvent Trinidadian calypso while living in diaspora, Gonsalves implies that as long as the music retains its political urgency along with "the delight in melody and wordplay that is the hallmark of all the great music of the Caribbean, " he sees no reason why a Canadian environment can't be as benign a laboratory as the New York environment which hybridized Cuban and Puerto Rican musics. With one major caveat.

"While I love calypso, I must confess that I hate most soca made post-1990." Gonsalves admits. "The almost universal use of the drum machine and midi-sequencing has had a tragic effect on Trinidadian music--robbing it of its musicality, it's very soul."

I found an echo of this caution around mechanical, "soulless" hybridization when asking Shanta Thake to comment as a curator about issues of authenticity and appropriation in some of the new global fusions. "We're doing some panels as part of APAP on "What is World Music 2.0," said Thake. "What are the new trends; how do you draw people in whether its electronic or acoustic in style; and how do we bridge certain gaps from a presenter's point of view.

"It doesn't have to be an all African band to play African music," Thake stresses. "Of course you want and need some of the [unadulterated] tradition...you don't just want to be co-opting traditions and calling them your own. But... when people do fusion well, it just draws more listeners into researching who ARE the masters, what IS this form. When you listen to Watcha Clan, hearing all those great gypsy rhythms and Morrocan and French influences, it makes you want to do the research to find out who they are sampling."

During the two days of world music panels which ran parallel to separate "issues and answers" panels devoted either to Jazz or Classical music, Liv Buli of Next Big Sound, Kendel Ratley of Kickstarter, and Tony Van Veen of CD Baby joined other digital service providers to discuss how digital fulfilllment houses, online downloads, streaming content, social networking and You Tube can generate income and touring opportunities for musicians no matter where they live. World music, while still a break-even lavor of love for most who produce, present, record and promote it, CAN make money. Perhaps now more than ever. But with terminology, categories and technology still in flux (most people who use the term "world music" still don't like it), it seems to me that the unacknowledged elephant in the room is that the imminent liberation of "world music" from the commercial margins equals the end of "world music" as we currently know it.

Asked to name her most memorable experiences from past Global Fests, Thake runs down a list of favorites: Balkan Beat Box at the Public Theater before the festival moved to Webster Hall; Mexico's Lila Downs, as one of a number of established stars who nonetheless did their New York debut for free at Global Fest.

"Wang Li, a Chinese artist living in France came last year. He's a master of the jaw harp and plays the calabash. Li played the Studio room downstairs which is usually where we put our high energy rock acts," she recalled. "He was nervous about playing for an hour in that atmosphere with a very quiet sound. But people were silent through his entire performance! It felt like church in Webster Hall, in the unlikeliest of ways!"

I also recall similar moments of astonished pleasure at Webster Hall. The hypnotic a cappella of the Occitan harmony group Lo Cor de la Plana. The perfect blend of Jewish klezmer and gypsy jazz achieved by Les Yeux Noires. The James Brown meets Bollywood exuberance of Indian pop star Kailash Kher. This year I felt a similar thrill hearing a jazz-influenced harmonica ensemble at the Mundial Montreal showcase on Saturday. Four young men from Quebec with mouth harps executing harmolodic jazz breaks in the middle of an Arcadian folk melody! Is it jazz? Is it folk? Is it pop? Does it matter?

With more and more musicians mixing influences like this, and a network of increasingly sophisticated, tech savvy consumers who appreciate the results, how long before divisive musical categories are rendered totally obsolete?

Published in: Village Voice, January 14, 2013