Globe Spirit: The Role of Music
This essay looks at how music creates bonds that bring people together. As World Beat creates new fusions, and the Internet makes “foreign” sounds more accessible and easy to download, new questions arise about how to control the sale and distribution of global music.
Music and dance are in the heart of many travelers. Music is the gateway to a country’s soul. Music is the true ambassador among nations. It connects people in a way the governments can not. Heavy metal music reverberated behind the iron curtain long before western political voices permeated the border. In fact, it was music that loosened the bolts and welds of the iron curtain, so that it could be torn down. A friend from East Germany once told me about an elaborate hunt down communist back alleys to find bootleg cassettes of heavy metal music from West Germany. A friend from Kazakhstan impressed me with his extensive collection of western-influenced alternative music that existed within the Soviet Union. I continue to gather music from the former communist bloc that out survived the very political structure that repressed it: The Plastic People of the Universe from the Czech Republic, Idoli from former Yugoslavia, Sziami from Hungary, and Auktion and Egor Letov from Russia. From the west, the Beatles made the most impact across the world, and their seductive lyrics were frequently smuggled behind the Iron Curtain even during the height of the Cold War. Rock and roll strongly echoes today in even the most closed countries such as Myanmar, Libya, and North Korea.
As politics and economics divide nations, music and dance has always bonded its citizens together. For example, Cuban dance music remains very popular in the U.S. despite its economic boycott against Fidel Castro’s regime. Music breaks through the chains that politicians weld together. Naturally, discussion about the global village should include talk about music.
My quest to discover new global music is a sub-theme of all my travel experiences. Thus, one stop on every tour of mine always includes a visit to a record store. If I purchase any souvenir at all it is usually in the form of a CD. Each compact disc in my collection has a story behind it. Music unlocks dormant memories and allows them to burst forth into light. When the magnetic strip drags along a tape head or a laser licks at a small silver disc, I am taken back to the past or I escape on tour into another country. For me globalization has a rhythm. As I write, Algerian Rai music, by Cheb Khaled and Rachid Taha, vibrates across the walls of my room. Without this music I would probably have stayed at home in the United States and continued to work in the same window manufacturing factory for decades. Once I tapped into the global soul with international music, I hungered for travel to distant lands.
My wanderlust has its didactic roots in National Geographic magazine, nature documentaries and, much later, World Beat music. The former two sparked curiosity, but the later put me on quest to meet international students in the United States. I would seek out international communities on campus to hear their music and to discuss life outside my own country. In trade I would proofread essays, tutor them, help them with tasks such as studying for a drivers license exam, and volunteer for English conversation classes. These global exchanges inspired me to teach overseas. World music exposed me to international opportunities; it rhythmically knocked and I listened.
World music made its first indent in U.S. popular culture with Latin Jazz. However, Asian and Pacifica sounds first moved into the mainstream after World War Two when soldiers returned home with new music from foreign countries (and an huge influx of Asian immigrants brought their homeland’s music with them). This music incubated for a few years before taking root in the form of pioneers such as Martin Denny and Les Baxter. The time was ripe for curiosity about world music. Hawaii had finally been declared a state in 1959, after being annexed via military intervention, and the gateway to Asia had opened up for many Americans with Jazz-influenced “exotica” music. My parent’s owned a few vinyl records by these musicians and my first listen to the international music genre came in this form.
Before the 1990s international music was quite rare in the United States. One could find a few selections hidden in the folk music section of big city record stores, but that was about it. World Beat collectors pretty much depended on international students, former Peace Corps volunteers, and returning foreign workers for their supply. On entering college I developed many friendships with international students who would share their homeland’s music with me. At Utah State University I sold my bed to Turkish students for $5 and two cassette tapes, I bootlegged recordings from Somali students who I threw dinner parties for, I traded western music with an Iranian student for the privilege of copying his personal tapes, and I befriended an Indian student who was absolutely pleased and trusting to lend out his own collection. Usually, the listening of this music was combined with dinner parties, plenty of wine, and a full night of conversation.
My first adult taste of World Beat music, like many other people, came from Reggae music and Paul Simon’s “Graceland”. This later hybrid CD was a controversial at the time because he enlisted South African musicians to perform with him despite an international boycott due to apartheid. Impressed by the recording, I inquired about hard-to-find copies of South African music. My search turned up recordings from the mixed-race, Juluka, and a couple of obscure Soweto compilation albums. Eventually, several years later, Peter Gabriel recognized the demand for world music and started his Realworld/Womad music company. This record label promptly became the Mecca for world beat enthusiasts around the world. For the first time we had a trustworthy label to showcase international superstars from every corner of the globe.
The audience for international music is now rapidly moving out of the underground. There are many new labels for world music and fans can also tap into new Internet technology if they tire of waiting for record companies to catch on. Today World Beat music is the fastest growing selection at United States record stores. It is music that actually inspires tourism.
The term “World Beat” is an artificial construct. It was linguistically manufactured so that it could be properly marketed. What does the “world” in World Beat (or the “global” in global village) refer to? It all depends on where you are standing. Country music is World Beat if you are Japanese and Bluegrass is in the international genre if you are born in Thailand. In Asia any of the abundant western music can be classified as “World Beat”. However, domestically speaking, the top 40 selections promoted by the United States media machine contradict the process of globalization. U.S. radio stations refuse to play international music unless it is sung in English, and domestically MTV rarely acknowledges musicians that are not from the west. Likewise, CNN’s World Beat music program is almost exclusively comprised of western artists. Radio and television are more interested in marketing western music overseas than in bringing foreign music into our borders. It is as if the global village has placed an one-way embargo on sharing music across the airwaves.
It is ironic that the nation that protests that it represents freedom and democracy most, is actually the country leading the global crusade to censor music and block listener access. United States religious leaders have tried to censor and file lawsuits against British artists such as Judas Priest, Ozzy Osbourne, Sex Pistols, and Led Zeppelin due to objectionable language or claims of subliminal lyrics embedded in songs. Members of rap artists such as 2 Live Crew have been arrested in Florida and record store employees have been fined for selling their records. Corporate chain stores from Wal-Mart to K-Mart have refused to stock music with lyrics deemed offensive. Historically, there was also great pressure by the record industry to segregate races from playing Jazz music together. But, White musicians continue to profit from music coming out of the African-American culture, sometimes without paying proper respect to the original source.
Moreover, the U.S. record companies are applying severe pressure for Asian governments to stop its citizens from duplicating unauthorized copies of western music; a double standard since U.S. agricultural businesses are aggressively trying to route around biodiversity ownership rights and intellectual property rights. Patents on India’s basamati rice and Thailand’s jasmine rice – two of the most important exports and diet staples for the countries –have recently been adapted to U.S. soil. Being large sources of revenue this is a point of resentment.
The most recent trend by the U.S. industry is to ban the Internet trading of music by websites such as NAPSTER. The recording industry, which makes over $12 billion a year in revenue, feel threatened by this new technology. When artists can independently release and sell their own music, the record companies will become obsolete. Therefore, they are blocking this free trade with lawsuits. For world music fans such as myself this is a frightening proposition. There is a lot of cutting edge, innovative, underground artists to listen to in the world. Fans should not have to wait until record companies declare that a musician is profitable enough to have their music released. The industry should not drive the market. If I want to listen to a new Russian band like DDT or the Hungarian power rock of Masfel, I should not be required to wait 5-10 years until the backward record industry finally takes notice.
I am reminded of being a fan of Punk rock in the 1970s. American radio was very conservative then, it blockaded and even banned this new rebellious form of rock and roll. It was very difficult to obtain punk rock music, especially as a teenager living in Utah. It was originally circulated on the underground, by word-of-mouth, until record companies caught on and decided to profit from it. Beforehand, I was forced to listen to mundane music by bands such as ELO, Kansas, REO Speedwagon, Air Supply, and Styx; and I still haven’t recovered from the relentless bombardment of Disco (now reincarnated as Techno).
When I first heard the Sex Pistols or the Ramones it was like a fresh breath of hope and energy. Punk rock ultimately lost in the end. It was eventually sanitized, de-politicized, and co-opted by the mainstream. Today American radio and television remain timid and over commercialized. I guess this is why I permanently turned off my radio and continue to avoid MTV like the plague. As a fan of global music I know that I now have other sources to turn to. Like they did with punk rock, the American media will start embracing world beat music 10-20 years too late – and probably destroy the spirit of the genre in the process.
By graduate school I struggled to remedy the situation as a disc jockey with my own program for international music. I later bonded with a French business student with the same taste in music and a lot more talent in his public presentations. Together we established a dedicated following to our globe spirit. This college radio program became a clearinghouse for international students to drop in, play their music, and promote student events. Visitors were allowed to say anything they liked on the air and to discuss news no matter how controversial. By the time I graduated, the program was moved to a popular late night slot, thus illustrating a strong demand for world music. As music director for folk and international music, I witnessed world beat skyrocket in popularity in my three years at KBVR-FM radio in Oregon. Each year there are many new record companies based overseas and thousands of new international artists with released music.
World music, however, is still neglected by the mainstream. It remains underground as if it was the accidental torch-holder of defiance that Punk rock once was. Nonetheless, the United States still demand that songs be sung only in English. Linguistic segregation remains in place in terms of music. American recording companies own distribution rights to many overseas performing artists, but this doesn’t mean that they will market these musicians in the United States. Many other western recording companies also have had bases in Asia (Warner, EMI, Chrysalis, A&M, Motown, BMG, Atlantic, Elektra), but they are reluctant to bring new foreign musicians into western markets. The Asian bands that do make it into the west are almost always uncontroversial, western-style imitators, who usually translate their songs into English.
One theory has it that World Beat music doesn’t exist overseas. Western music is so highly available and mass-marketed that it isn’t really considered international. I have had Hungarians request Seattle grunge, Koreans plead for gangster Rap, and Thais inquire about American Techno. It is quite normal to hear the Rolling Stones blaring out of a Chinese stereo, Blues wafting out the window from a Japanese bar, and 1960s hippie music floating around a Lao airport. I saw Romanians dancing to country music, I met a Hungarian teacher who wrote her thesis on the Blues, and both Johny Cash and Serge Gainsbourg still continue to have a strong cult following in Japan. The global village is thoroughly saturated with western music.
Although there is an overseas fascination with English-spoken music, there is a surprising lack of interest in music across a country’s border. To elaborate, I could not find Yugoslavian music anywhere in the Hungarian cities that border it. Likewise, Hungarian music vanishes once one hits the Slovakian border. In Korea, Japanese music is banned and “international” sections of record stores consist of soft, conventional, Chinese pop music. Japan has little interest in the music of Southeast Asia and Vietnam has almost no interest in anything Arabic. Musically speaking, the global village still has many boundaries segregating it. In Asia the best way to find World Beat is at the small stalls that sell pirated copies. On occasion you do have odd luck at a corporate record store. In Korea I once found an obscure Estonian band, Kirile Loo, and CDs by two Swedish bands that write Heavy-metalish covers of medieval Scandinavian folk songs, Garmarna and Hedingarna.
However, the most reliable source for obtaining new sounds in this genre is the black market that caters to western tastes. Pirated CDs and bootleg recording are circulating everywhere. Internet exchange sites allow western music enthusiasts access to new releases from non-English speaking countries. My friends overseas can also sample western music that is out of their price range.
World Beat is an American and European concept. It is not necessarily ironic that global music is most widely embraced by a country’s with colonial pasts or imperialist interests. Outside the United States, World Beat has its strongest followers in France, Germany, Spain, and the United Kingdom. Having histories entwined with the third world colonies and hosting large migrant communities, westerners have a natural interest in world music. The citizens of these countries are in an economic situation that enables them to travel and explore foreign nations. They can afford to traverse the global village while most citizens of the developing countries must remain at home. The irony is that western tastes prefer traditional folk music from these countries, although it is increasingly mocked and abandoned by its own population who now prefer music with a western tinge. The youths of many nations are rejecting their own traditional music in favor of new musical trends such as Rap and Techno. They have fully embraced western-style music as their own. In these ways the term World Beat does not exist overseas.
The trend is that World Beat is moving toward a fusion of new hybrids. Western Techno uses samples from India, Rap musicians merge rhymes with rhythms from the Mid-East, and Jazz continues to lace itself into a global joint. However, these samples sometimes include the works of unpaid and non-credited international musicians. World fusion is being spread to all corners of the globe. Third world musicians have started to mix genres, using traditional instruments to play rock and roll. The other day I heard a Mongolian singing a country song using the traditional throat singing style from Tuva. One of my favorite bands, Afro Celt Sound System, is comprised of band members from Ireland, India, and Africa. There is also a more recent trend in which Latin Salsa, Mambo, and Merengue are hitting the spotlight in many parts of Asia.
World fusion music is growing organically due to global cross-pollination. As musicians are exposed to new music they start to experiment with new flavors. If they are lucky they can jam with a foreign musician who visits them. For some musicians this match is a natural combination: witness the African Blues of Ali Farka Touri once combined with the Delta Blues of Ry Cooder. For other musicians the combination will take us to heights never heard before and to sounds never imagined. World music continues to prove, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that rhythm does not know of any borders. It is this music and dance that continues to unite the souls of travelers and brings locals together with tourists.