Imagining “World Music”

My spot on last week’s Curved Radio programme was on ‘world music’. Since the topic overlaps with my research, I thought I’d post a short summary. Basically, I played three tracks by French bands that are classified as ‘world music’ and have quite different relations with the ‘world making’ of ‘world music’.

‘World music’ has been a controversial term since its conception. Mainly used as a Western marketing term for non-Western ‘traditional’ music in the 80s, it has expanded to included almost anything that isn’t anglophone Western pop music (which, could be argued, isn’t just ‘Western’ in the first place). As South African trumpet player and composer Hugh Masekela, interviewed by Anya Wassenberg for the Huffington Post, describes it: “At one point, the term ‘world music’ was coined,” he remarked dryly. “I woke up one day and people told me I was playing world music.”

Many have argued that it is practically meaningless, other than as a commercial, quasi-colonial construct. In a discussion on Reddit, contributor Scaredoftriangles comments: “World music has always been such a derogatory term to me…pan pipes, chimes, old men in non-ironic wolf shirts selling dreamcatchers.” Indeed, this sight can be experienced at many ‘world music’ events, and even bigger festivals such as Peter Gabriel et al’s Womad. One of the more famous rants against ‘world music’ is David Byrne‘s 1999 New York Times Commentary: ‘I Hate World Music’. In this article, he criticises both its absurdity as a category and its exoticisation. This exoticisation works down to the shape of award figurines given out for ‘world music’. For Wassenberg, the term ‘world music serves to ‘ghettoiz[e] great music’.

At the same time, there have been many defences of ‘world music’, even from people who are uncomfortable with the term. There appear to be two broad directions: the ‘conservation’ and the ‘decolonisation’. The ‘conservationists’ believe that ‘world music’ contributes to ‘discovering’, supporting and thus preserving types of music that would otherwise have gone out of fashion and thus cultural practice. From ‘ethnological’ recordings to Buena Vista Social Club, there is a huge spectrum of attempts to create ‘revivals’, some more successful than others. Advocates of this practice argue that the commercial appropriation, insufficient contextualisation and frequent dependence on Western valudation outweighs the benefits to the culture in question.

The ‘decolonial‘ direction is characterised by the impulse to use Western/non-Western cultural exchange to dislocate the West as a centre. This is also the direction that Curved Radio tries to follow. This direction more or less comfortably unites, for instance, people who have found their world expanded through hearing music from other places, and people who are struggling against losing further ground in the struggle over cultural hierarchies. Here, the entanglement of economic and cultural power are hotly debated, and the various means that could work toward subverting the worlds sonic hierarchies and towards creating a different one. Particularly here, the terms of presenting music from other cultures are constantly negotiated, although this impulse can also sometimes be found with the ‘conservationists’. I tried to illustrate some of these issues through three band that I encountered in France around the same time in the early 2000s: Edgar de L’est, Monkomarok and Lo’Jo.

Edgar de L’est (Isabelle Becker and Edgar Daguier), as the name already implies (a world play on ‘at Gare de L’Est’), hav a very tongue-in-cheek take on ‘world music’. If I remember correctly, I read in an interview that were founded on the idea to sonically imagine other places through music. To me, their chanson, folk and jazz inflected music reflects the German term Fernweh – a longing to be in a far-away place. With titles such as ‘Mon Cowboy’, ‘L’Orient’, ‘Slavinka’, they could easily be accused of exoticisation. At the same time, their music feels both innocent (like a child discovering the world, not being able to go anywhere and contextualise yet) and knowing (playing with Western/non-Western clichés through ‘trashy’ renditions). It is an approach that we have attempted with a song in my own band, now, where we took a ridiculous commercial jingle for Asian food and deconstructed it in a song called ‘Ethnik Snack‘. In the song ‘L’Orient’, Edgar de L’Est use a different method of subversion: they go through every imaginable orientalisation, but also give a look behind the scenes where the lonely, miserable narrator sits drunk in a bed in Paris, a city and sound fraught with its own struggle against commercial caricature. It’s about exoticisation as both a form of sad escapism and as an inevitable perpetuation of that which one is trying to escape from. (I did actually play ‘Slavinka’ on the programme, but now I think the ‘L’Orient’ song illustrates their method best – plus there is a video online!)

The second track that I played was from Toulousian experimental ‘world’ band Monkomarok (Alima Hamel, Laurent Rochelle, Sylvain Fournier, Loic Schild) – who were active from 2000-2008. Their first album blew my mind with its range of influences and its trippy sound. I still love how they worked with tension and energy, it felt like they were using acoustic music (although they sometimes also use synthesisers) to produce an electric surge. The sleeve notes to this 2002 album, entitled ‘Au plafond’, talk about the profundity of their own musical encounters and about creating an imaginary place within them. This is also reflected in the many thankyous to people they count as influences, supporters and collaborators. Their use of vocals is particularly interesting, with Alima Hamel (who is also a poet) singing in languages such as Algerian Arabic, French and German but also experimenting with sound textures. On ‘Au plafond’, she is doing a lot of impressive percussive work with her voice, as well ‘controlled chaos’ vocalisations which make her sound like a human randomizer. For me, this ‘what on Earth is this??’ reaction that the band often elicits, paired with their definite Western and non-Western influences, is an interesting musical provocation – to the imagined commercial ‘world music’ utopia but also to many music genres that appear to have ossified into particular forms such as ‘dance music’ or ‘jazz’. While I played the hypnotic ‘dance’ track ‘Le Sueur’ (Sweat), there is no online recording, so here, instead, is a rare live recording of ‘Au Plafond”s opening refusal, ‘Non Merci’.

The lyrics of this song are remarkable, too, especially through the play on the double meaning of the French word for ‘everyone’: ‘tout le monde’. For the current world to work, everyone is supposed to hide their anger – the machine must run smoothly – but she is celebrating refusal.

Je suis toujours en colère
Ca ne se voit pas
C’est parce que je m’applique
Je fais comme tout le monde
Je trompe mon monde
Je fais semblant

Ani kolwun mkelba
Ndil kime koul ness
Nralat lribed
Ndil bel reni

Ma colère?
Je l’ai soingneusement cousu contre mon sein
Les mains plenes contre mon coeur
Qu’est ce que je deviendrai sans ma colère?
Un pantin raide couleur glaise.
Une machine à fabriquer des ronds.
Une chose parfaite qui ne dit jamais non.
Un indigne mouton borgne sans rêves.
Non merci, sans façon…
Je fais l’apologie du refus.
Je fais l’éloge du pas d’accord
Aini mra ou nogrod wefka
Aini mra ou nogrod wefka

The final track of the show was from Lo’Jo, who are much more well-known in the offical ‘world music’ circuit due to their participation in WOMAD and collaborations with groups such as Tinariwen and Gangbe Brass Band. They initially started out in the early 1980s as a duo or trio (Denis Péan, Richard Bourreau), which seemed to grow into a community that combined music with street theatre, acrobatics, dance, film. The group did not become a more fixed formation and did not record albums until the mid-1990s. The sound of Lo’Jo is frequently described as ‘Gypsy’, tribal, nomadic (initially they were even called Lo’Jo Triban) or even shamanic, as they combine folk music from North and West Africa, Eastern and Western Europe and the Caribbean. I have also seen the term ‘global fusion’ applied to them, and one album review (for ‘Au Cabaret Sauvage’, 2002) reads “Tom Waits meets the Touaregs. Very tasty.”

What drew me to them were their epic, ecstatic sound, that is produced by a super-tight arrangement of string instruments (khora, violin, bass), percussion and vocal harmonies (amazing singers Yamina and Nadia Nid el Mourid, supported by Kham Meslien and Baptiste Brondy on bass and drums). John Lusk from the BBC argues that despite their many influences, they have a distinctive local sound: “As the barriers around ‘fortress Europe’ get ever higher, Lo’Jo’s open-minded and outward-looking approach to music seems to make them more and more identifiably French.” Lusk is quick to point out that around 56% of the French population identify as being of ‘foreign’ background, and that the band’s local support and ties very much contribute to the development of their sound:

“The group’s core still live and work collectively in a farmhouse given them by the mayor of Angers in return for providing local children with musical education. Another municipally inspired boost for the unlikely idealists came with twinning of their hometown with the Malian capital of Bamako.”

In many ways, Lo’Jo personify the utopian and problematic tropes of works music, and I cannot help thinking about them when listening to their undoubtedly beautiful music. The band describe themselves as ‘plantetary troubadours’ who maintain an ‘anarchic garden’ of ‘world rhythms and universal harmonies’, which may raise alarm bells with cultural and especially decolonial critics. At the same time, Lo’Jo emphasise and try to practice cultural exchange on equal terms. In and outside their music campaign for a multicultural French national ideintity (e.g. their song “La Marseillaise en Creole“), and in an interview in the New York Times, where Denis Péan explains: “The name Lojo means nothing. It is just a sound. Basically, Lojo is a school. Everybody learns. Everybody teaches.” For me, the sound and journey(s) of Lo’Jo exemplify that, especially for white ‘Westerners’, different forms of cultural exchange need to be attempted despite the many problems on the way. We all shape world music and the economy and relations it is embedded in, and music is a place as good as any other to start experimenting.

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