Are We the World? Global Music in the U.S. Faces the 21st Century

Sony Music’s recent and massive Soundtrack of a Century collection includes a two-CD set called International Music, ostensibly to celebrate the geographically diverse roots of the recording industry. After all, donkeys were used to haul demo cylinder recordings around Russia in the late 1880s, and the Columbia Phonograph Company General established its first Parisian offices in 1897. But what these two discs really are is a sampling of rather newly signed potential crossover acts from Sony divisions around the globe. Clearly, someone corporate hopes that multilingual exotics like Taiwan’s Coco Lee, Denmark’s Eurasian duo S.O.A.P, and the Filipino funk trio Kulay might have what it takes to follow Ricky Martin up American pop charts. Unfortunately, the collection represents a very late and strangely halfhearted leap into a world music market that has gotten increasingly viable in the U.S. over the past 20 years. You would think that Sony, an intrepid Japanese multinational that acquired the master catalog and 100-plus-year-old legacy of Columbia Records on the cusp of the ’90s, would be leading the pack by now in marketing foreign pop stars in America. But like most major labels–and unlike an increasing number of U.S.-based indies–Sony has proven reluctant to throw its full promotional weight behind world music as something as worthy and universally important as Anglo-American pop.

The historical perspective provided by Soundtrack of a Century reminds us just how early in the previous century American record manufacturing technology was embraced by the rest of the world, and also reminds us just how dependent that technology was on the established popularity of European-styled orchestras, marching bands, and opera. Black vaudeville and ragtime piano rolls helped popularize the first truly American pop music, which wasn’t recorded or marketed in great quantity until the 1920s. But from 1899 through 1914, audio engineers from competing record companies (Edison cylinders battled Berliner’s flat discs for format dominance until 1901) traveled the globe recording regional music to stimulate international demand for their products. Consequently, there was soon a body of recorded music in German, Turkish, Italian, and Chinese, a good deal of which sold briskly in the U.S. to homesick immigrant populations. This “world music” thing is far from new.

Look up the term “world music” in Miller Freeman’s All Music Guide, and you’ll find the following: “In the Western world, ‘World music’ refers either to music that doesn’t fall into the North American and British pop or folk traditions, or to hybrids of various indigenous musics. . . . Worldbeat is something different than world music, since it’s usually the result of Western hybrids and fusions, yet it still falls under the world music umbrella because it borrows styles, sounds and instrumentation from various indigenous musics.” What lean, feisty labels like Luaka Bop, Qbadisc, and Putumayo seem to have discovered is that the protectionist arrogance behind the above definition of world music–and a similarly arrogant preference many critics have for archaic ethnographic recordings over more contemporary commercial hybrids–is hopelessly outmoded. They not only know that a new and more sophisticated American consumer has evolved over the past 20 years–they helped create him. This consumer is not only curious about parallel pop cultures in different nations; he is dedicated enough to seek out all the magazines, Web sites, and online retail outlets that have arisen to support this enthusiasm.

Twenty years ago, half of my collection of Brazilian and African pop music had to be bought in the records’ countries of origin because those few American stores that did carry foreign pop carried a small number of superexpensive imports, and almost never stocked current releases. Today the world music sections in big chain stores like Tower, HMV, and Virgin can extend over almost an entire floor. In 1979, Chris Blackwell’s Mango imprint was the only domestic company basing its bottom line on promoting nonwhite, non-American musics. In the year 2000, Mango is still in the game, aggressively promoting the hybridized African pop of Angelique Kidjo; following Mango’s example, David Byrne’s Luaka Bop arose to champion the stateside careers of Zap Mama and Tom Zé. And taking up all the slack in between are a host of small domestic labels that once dealt exclusively with blues or folk or contemporary Celtic, but saw the wisdom in adding African, Asian, and Near Eastern artists to their rosters. New Jersey-based Shanachie expanded through the ’80s from an initial concentration on reggae and Irish music to release albums by Fela Kuti, Ofra Haza, and Ladysmith Black Mambazo. Shanachie’s celebrated affiliation with global record collector Pat Conte led in 1995 to a critically acclaimed set of ethnographic CDs called The Secret Museum of Mankind, documenting world music from 1925 to 1945. Rounder Records just made available some 30-year-old field recordings from Yemen, Ethiopia, and New Guinea, while the Smithsonian label just acquired the entire Folkways catalog for online mail order.

California’s Higher Octave made good this past year by promoting solo CDs and tours by the Cuban members of the Grammy-winning Buena Vista Social Club. Still helping to sell these records, the original Buena Vista concert film has just gone triumphantly to video. And not to be outdone by multimedia tie-ins, the ambitious team behind Putumayo World Music offers elaborate packaging and liner notes for their compilations of contemporary African, Caribbean, and American Indian music. Little by little, the bar in world music is rising. A few of the labels still rely too heavily on ethnographic field recordings, but all this varied activity only contributes to the kind of free-market dynamic that will make it hard for less sincere majorlabels to outperform or outwit their smaller competitors.

In the mid ’80s, Nonesuch stopped resting on its respected classical and ethnographic laurels and produced the first U.S. recording of Brazilian pop star Caetano Veloso. Then, in the late ’90s, when it decided to get serious about promoting contemporary African musicians, it licensed material from Oumou Sangare, Ali Farka Toure, and Afel Bocoum to supply its World Circuit imprint. One can’t help but wonder what would happen if any of these acts were given a substantial artist-development budget. All of these developments tend to recast the overwhelming Anglo-American influence on global pop for the past 50 years as an idyll, an extended advertising coup, a tribute to African American innovation, and to a certain degree, an economic mirage.

Future trends in world music are for the most part already “here,” though they still operate a bit under the radar of suburban mall commerce. The Indian diaspora–which hasalready given us bhangra, anokha, and unexpected new forms of Trinidadian soca–will become even more influential in underground dance music as deejays and divas from Brooklyn and Jersey continue to cross-pollinate by traveling to clubs in London, Italy, Japan, and Singapore. Indian and Arab Muslim communities in San Francisco and L.A. are importing films and pop music from their countries of origin that have already inspired innovations in West Coast hip-hop. The Saudi production of an uptempo Arabic tune called “Bye-Bye Princess Diana” is as infectious a piece of polyrhythmic call and response as anything ever produced by C&C Music Factory, and remains a big seller in San Francisco after more than a year.

Aside from the fact that a new group of gullible eight-year-olds comes along every year, I predict that the pop music market of the 21st century will be consumer-driven rather than steered by manipulative multinational label heads. I predict that funky Afro-French pop by girl duos like Native and Les Nubians will create an American vogue–just as crafty as that British acid jazz movement of the past decade–for all kinds of contemporary French balladeers who’ve been inspired by Gypsy and African Arab melodies. And I predict that small American labels will be licensing and promoting them, often from artist-owned virtual imprints on the Internet.

Since Caruso and other foreign opera stars sold countless records in this country during the first half of the 20th century, we know that language is no real obstacle. And given how many r&b, rap, and reggae records American whites have spent money on in the second half of this century, we know that race is no obstacle, either. The Net and desktop manufacturing are making the average American kid a true citizen of the world–stimulating his appetite for new things and (more importantly) new faces. So with dozens of domestic rosters to fill, plus ever cheaper marketing and distribution tools, the next Beatles-like phenomenon could very well emerge from Southeast Asia. And via live tours, streaming media, and multilingual Web sites, the American public will eagerly embrace it.

Published in: Village Voice, February 8, 2000