In an era of Spo­tify, is the ‘world’ la­bel over?

To­day’s tech­nol­ogy means mu­sic can be dis­cov­ered no mat­ter where on the globe it is be­ing played, and it is open­ing ex­cit­ing new air­waves from East to West, writes Dan Han­cox

The National - News - The Review - - Front Page - Dan Han­cox is a reg­u­lar con­trib­u­tor to The Re­view.

On June 29, 1987, a small group of DJs, jour­nal­ists and pro­duc­ers gath­ered in a Lon­don bar to dis­cuss a fairly niche mar­ket­ing prob­lem that would have huge global im­pli­ca­tions.

Those as­sem­bled in the Em­press of Rus­sia all had an in­ter­est in mu­sic beyond the West, pro­fes­sional or oth­er­wise, but were strug­gling to get it into the hands of their fel­low acolytes. The mu­sic of Nige­rian pi­o­neer King Sunny Ade was be­ing filed un­der “reg­gae” (which he wasn’t), Qawwali leg­end Nus­rat Fateh Ali Khan was be­ing filed un­der “jazz” (again, wrong) – and oth­ers were just be­ing lost in the al­pha­bet.

A cou­ple of years ear­lier, Paul Si­mon’s Grace­land had drawn western ears to groups like Lady­smith Black Mam­bazo, the sound of South African town­ships – but they couldn’t get hold of it. So the group met to dis­cuss how they might bet­ter mar­ket and dis­trib­ute mu­sic from out­side the An­glo­phone world: the re­sult was a cam­paign (at the cost of £3,500) to cre­ate a new fil­ing cat­e­gory in western record shops: they voted on the name – re­ject­ing op­tions such as “roots”, “eth­nic” and “world beat” – and alighted on “world mu­sic”.

In the three decades since that meet­ing the phrase has been fre­quently ma­ligned, for per­haps ob­vi­ous rea­sons – seem­ing to cen­tre western mu­sic as the nat­u­ral or­der of things, and (de­pend­ing on your cri­tique) ex­oti­cis­ing, ghet­tois­ing or ho­mogenis­ing the end­lessly var­ied cul­tures, lan­guages and mu­sic styles ex­ist­ing out­side that nar­row part of the world.

In 2004, the Em­press of Rus­sia group who had coined the term were re­united, and were mostly de­fi­ant about the prac­ti­cal gains their his­toric coinage had achieved: a surge in global cul­tural ex­change and un­der­stand­ing, many more mu­si­cians from out­side the West hav­ing their mu­sic heard and many more of them get­ting paid for it.

“In a coun­try like Gambia or Mada­gas­car, quite small sales – 10,000 records – can buy some­body a house,” re­flected Ian An­der­son, edi­tor of the long-run­ning f Roots magazine. “None of this would have hap­pened with­out that world mu­sic box. So against [critic of the term and Bri­tish In­dian mu­si­cian] Nitin Sawh­ney, who gets grumpy be­cause he gets put in that box, I throw in these thou­sands of oth­ers who ben­e­fit from it and say I don’t care.”

Of course, the cen­tralised sales me­chan­ics and dis­tri­bu­tional net­works that ex­isted in the late 1980s have been turned in­side out and up­side down in the past 30 years. And if “world mu­sic” was coined pri­mar­ily as a prag­matic tool, rather than a genre, im­ply­ing some­thing re­motely co­he­sive, then what does it still have a place at this point in the dig­i­tally-en­hanced 21st cen­tury?

Record shops have be­come some­thing akin to her­itage sites, where they have sur­vived at all – a gift shop with no mu­seum at­tached – and any­one with an in­ter­net con­nec­tion can plunge straight into the heart of a hitherto self-con­tained scene thou­sands and thou­sands of miles away. For DJ, mu­si­cian and writer Jace Clay­ton – a zeal­ous acolyte of ev­ery­thing from Ber­ber folk mu­sic in Egypt to var­i­ous types of Latin “cumbia”, the last decade and a half has seen “a par­a­digm shift in how mu­sic it­self moves around”.

In his first book, Up­root: Trav­els in 21st-Cen­tury Mu­sic and Cul­ture, pub­lished last year, he doc­u­ments the way that folk mu­sic from re­mote com­mu­ni­ties can now more eas­ily end up as cof­fee table sound­tracks in western ci­ties, and also how mu­sic pro­duc­tion tech­nol­ogy like au­to­tune has been used in ex­cit­ing new ways by mu­si­cians whose in­stru­ments and styles have oth­er­wise re­mained the same for cen­turies, passed down through gen­er­a­tions prior to the ar­rival of recorded mu­sic.

“The speed with which dig­i­tal au­dio zips from one place to an­other has shrunk the world,” he writes, “short-cir­cuit­ing busi­ness mod­els and scram­bling lines of in­flu­ence. The over­whelm­ing avail­abil­ity of mu­sic that re­sults from this pro­lif­er­a­tion and porta­bil­ity is al­ter­ing our con­cep­tion of it in ways we’re only be­gin­ning to un­der­stand.”

Clay­ton calls this messy new dig­i­tal in­car­na­tion “world mu­sic 2.0” and he is right that we have not yet got the mea­sure of it – not least be­cause it is con­tin­u­ously evolv­ing. A ser­vice such as stream­ing site Spo­tify was ini­tially thought by in­dus­try ex­perts to be of great­est ben­e­fit to “the big boys”, and ob­struc­tive to smaller scale, in­de­pen­dently pub­lished mu­sic from beyond the West (or in­deed, in the West) – even though its co-founder, Daniel Ek, was telling a tech con­fer­ence, back in the dis­tant past of 2011: “We want all the African mu­sic, all the Asian mu­sic, all the South Amer­i­can mu­sic – our goal re­ally is to have all the world’s mu­sic.” From some un­sci­en­tific test­ing, it re­mains patchy, if far more com­pre­hen­sive than it was in 2011 – of the artists men­tioned in last week’s piece on these pages about the rise of the Mid­dle Eastern mix­tape, a hand­ful from the Fu­ture Ris­ing Dubai mix­tape – Eo­mac, Muhais­nah Four – are avail­able on Spo­tify.

But where there are gaps in spe­cial­ist tastes, other ser­vices such as Mix Cloud, Sound Cloud and YouTube fre­quently fill them in – and many happy hours can be spent surfing through scenes that a decade ago would have been im­pos­si­bly un­know­able.

How else would I have dis­cov­ered young Mozam­bi­can Afro-elec­tron­ica pro­ducer Freddy da Stupid (Sound Cloud), or kept up with all the lat­est tracks from the schmaltzy but ir­re­sistible Cape Verdean “zouk love” scene (YouTube). One of the most thrilling inventions of the mu­si­cal new world or­der is the web­site Ra­dio. Gar­den, launched as re­cently as De­cem­ber 2016, which presents an im­age of an in­ter­ac­tive Planet Earth freck­led with green dots, and the op­por­tu­nity to scroll around the planet like a dig­i­tal Colum­bus, be­fore jump­ing into any one of more than 8,000 of the world’s ra­dio sta­tions and lis­ten­ing to them live.

It is a daz­zling ex­pe­ri­ence be­cause for all its scope, it of­fers the op­por­tu­nity to feel the in­ti­macy of lo­cal ra­dio – Si­nar FM in Kuala Lumpur, Doro­j­noe Ra­dio in eastern Rus­sia, Ice FM in Green­land: at last, “where do you want to go to­day?” is as ex­cit­ing ques­tion as it should be.

Dig­i­tal progress also means archives thought lost or for­got­ten can be gath­ered, pol­ished and pre­sented anew – or just shared with a speed and uni­ver­sal­ity that had never been imag­ined. The web­site Awe­some Tapes From Africa is one ter­rific ex­am­ple – it is as de­scribed, a huge and in­cred­i­bly di­verse ar­chive of dif­fer­ent cas­sette tapes found for sale across Africa, digi­tised and made avail­able for down­load, for free. Founded in 2006 by Amer­i­can eth­no­mu­si­col­o­gist Brian Shimkovitch, it has since de­vel­oped into a record la­bel too, re­leas­ing mu­sic for sale, with 50 per cent of prof­its go­ing to the artists. Shimkovitch has found him­self wrapped up in “the of­ten fiery de­bates sur­round­ing [the] sus­pected post­colo­nial ten­den­cies of the western mu­sic in­dus­try”, he wrote in 2012 – but like his pre­de­ces­sors, main­tains the artists badly want their mu­sic to be heard and that it would be stranger, per­haps even “quasi-racist”, to ar­ti­fi­cially seal off the mu­si­cians from the glob­al­i­sa­tion that is sim­i­larly trans­form­ing the rest of the world.

Fur­ther­more, the dig­i­tal age has brought western sounds to Africa in such abun­dance that the cul­tural ex­change flies both ways, and has re­sulted in ex­cit­ing new pop and dance gen­res like hiplife (a mix­ture of Ghana­ian high-life and rap) and kuduro, a kind of An­golan dance mu­sic draw­ing on western house and techno.

Few styles are im­mune to the dig­i­tally en­hanced net­works of world mu­sic 2.0, and few wish to be. The Turk­ish band Baba Zula have per­fected what they call “Is­tan­bul psychedelia” across their two decades to­gether, and their new dou­ble al­bum XX is a ca­reer com­pi­la­tion of sorts, but one that rein­vents and re-records many of their tracks, reel­ing in new col­lab­o­ra­tors and com­bin­ing a plethora of styles, eastern and western, old and new, in a way that beau­ti­fully mir­rors the strengths of the great city it­self.

So we have strains of 1960s Turk­ish psy­che­delic rock, with its roots in Ana­to­lian folk mu­sic, but also loose, jazzy ex­per­i­ments and in­ter­jec­tions from their col­lab­o­ra­tions with dub leg­end Mad Pro­fes­sor, Can drum­mer Jaki Liebzeit. It’s a glo­ri­ous, he­do­nis­tic mess, and all of it pos­si­ble thanks to the pul­sat­ing net­works of the new world or­der.

Red­ferns; Getty Images;

Nus­rat Fateh Ali Khan, top; Ozgur Cakir­lar and Me­like Sahin of Baba Zula, above right; King Sunny Ade, above left.

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