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July 20, 2012 7:49 pm
Last week in Hyde Park, Paul Simon, accompanied by Ladysmith Black Mambazo, performed his seminal album Graceland. This weekend, a river of music from every Olympic nation flows along the Thames. Next week sees the 30th anniversary of the Womad Festival, whose empire now stretches from Adelaide to Abu Dhabi.
Yet influential voices are questioning the very concept of world music, which is a banner of convenience for some very strange bedfellows. But would abandoning it mean that musicians from other cultures would be even more dependent on the patronage of western stars?
Many phrases have been used to describe music outside the Anglo-American mainstream: world beats, global rhythms, ethnological music. The first Womad described itself less than pithily as showcasing “the traditional and contemporary arts of non-western cultures as practised in this country and throughout the world”. Five years later, a convocation in a London pub of journalists and representatives of tiny record labels then starting to make ripples agreed on “world music” as their banner: a label subsequently followed elsewhere. The Grammys, for example, introduced a “world music” category in 1991.
Britain’s new-found interest in music from outside the Anglo-American mainstream was a by-product of Graceland, backed up by some one-off singles and the touring of Zimbabwe’s Bhundu Boys, and the conspirators wanted dedicated racks for their albums in record shops. Music from other countries was almost impossible to find, outside specialist shops, nor was it broadcast. Peter Gabriel, who was introducing African rhythms into his own albums, remembers relying on “short-wave radio, friends who were better informed than I was, getting to know musicians … a slowly evolving network”.
That first Womad, which he and two collaborators organised 30 years ago, was “one of the most exciting experiences of my life and also one of the most horrifying. It was extraordinary artistically, but the financial loss was beyond the level of debt I was capable of sorting out.” Creditors became increasingly nasty until his former band welcomed him back for a benefit concert: “Saved by the generosity of Genesis”.
Thirty years on, the loudest voice calling for the abandonment of the term “world music” is Ian Birrell, a founder of the cross-cultural project Africa Express. “World music is limiting, it’s anachronistic, given the swirl of cultures and music and genres. Someone like Afrikan Boy [a Woolwich-based but Nigerian-born grime MC] – is he British? Is he world music? I don’t know. Or Spoek Mathambo [a South African DJ], who’s listening to electronic music and black music and mixing it all up and making something new?”
The term, Birrell insists, serves no function other than to keep musicians in a ghetto. “I’ve never liked the anthropological approach,” he says firmly. “Music is music is music.”
Ian Ashbridge of Wrasse Records, co-founder of Africa Express with Birrell and Damon Albarn, vehemently disagrees with that view. “If you filed Kristi Stassinopoulou under S, her sales would plummet. The amount of coverage world music gets is way higher than its sales would justify.”
But Birrell has an unlikely ally in Chris Smith, director of Womad. “In 30 years, the landscape has changed beyond recognition. I think we need to abandon ‘world music’ as a phrase, with respect to all those fine people who created it. It’s just about music: that’s why our current tag is ‘The World’s Festival’.”
Africa Express represents a different vision of international co-operation. According to Birrell, it is “about recognising that old divisions don’t apply”. The project – born out of frustration at the sidelining of African artists at the Live 8 benefit concerts that took place in 2005 – brings together African and Western musicians in tag-teaming cavalcades that tour Africa and Europe. Birrell points to Amadou and Mariam, who have worked with Albarn, among others, precisely “to escape from being thought of as African music”. Ethiopian elements in the forthcoming album from the Red Hot Chili Peppers are one by-product of Africa Express; another is Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones popping up as a guitarist for Rokia Traoré. In September, it becomes an actual express, a train that will tour Britain.
This initiative does, though, presuppose that foreign musicians can only succeed in the west if they are chaperoned into the charts by familiar names (Paul Simon, David Byrne; in the case of the Buena Vista Social Club, Ry Cooder). The Senegalese singer Baaba Maal, at least, has made his peace with the idea of world music. “Now I can accept the term. It’s allowed me to share with people from different parts of the world.”
Contra Birrell, he welcomes the anthropological approach. “Womad audiences are not just seeing the show, they’re trying to see behind, to the politics. It’s like a big classroom of culture. Some festivals, people come just to enjoy themselves. They go to Womad to learn something as well.”
Womad UK, Charlton Park, Wiltshire, July 26-29, www.womad.co.uk
Africa Express tour, September 2-9. www.africaexpress.co.uk
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