Mixing Up the World’s Beat
A new generation of border-crossing, genre-fusing musicians are remaking the soundtrack for our globalized world.
by David Hutcheon
Twenty years ago, the Tuvan musician Albert Kuvezin had little experience with rock music: His knowledge came from a few heavy-metal reel-to-reels that had been smuggled into his remote homeland-part of southern Siberia-through the black market. Today, Kuvezin downloads what he wants from the Internet and lets a variety of influences seep into his music. His band, Yat-Kha, plays horsehair fiddles and sings throaty tunes about riding the steppes and chasing girls on stallions, all with an unmistakable hard-rock feel.
Where “world music” once represented the timeless and the unadulterated, there are now hundreds of bands across the globe taking what they want from rock, dance music, and hip hop, and mixing it with the sounds of their own cultures, creating new hybrids that are hard to classify-and often harder to resist.
This isn’t about Paul Simon using Ladysmith Black Mambazo as backing vocalists. “We’ve graduated from the experiments of American producers taking snippets of ethnic exotica,” says Bob Duskis, president of Six Degrees Records, whose San Francisco label specializes in “genrebending” world music. Duskis sees a wave of young international artists, steeped in Western pop forms, reinterpreting the music on their own terms. From Brazilian DJs mixing hip hop and bossa nova to Indians in the U.K. blending sitars with electronica, says Duskis, “you’ve got a new generation with a foot in two worlds, and an ear in two worlds.”
This globalization of music, sometimes dubbed “world fusion,” is about the free trade of ideas, as well as sounds. It’s about kids in Texas learning that the oil industry is bankrolling corruption in Nigeria because they heard Femi Kuti sing about it over the funkiest of Afrobeats. It’s a trip for the passportless, a newspaper for the illiterate, a rallying cry for the dispossessed. Protestersfrom Genoa, Quebec City, and Seattle will tell you it’s better than their parents’ finger-pointing folk songs because-as evidenced by the music of Mexico’s Zapatista-inspired, ska-funk-mariachi merchants, Los de Abajo-you can dance to it.
It’s not entirely new, of course. Music has been crossing geographical boundaries since the days of slavery and the spice routes. Elvis Presley did it when he fused blues with country. Ravi Shankar became a godfather of psychedelia through his tutelage of George Harrison. Salif Keita, “the golden voice of Mali,” remembers his youth in Bamako, where tourists exposed him to the sounds of the ’70s: “I was listening to Anglo-Saxon music,” he says, “the Eagles, Bad Company, but my favorites were Pink Floyd.”
Yet in those days, either the musicians or their music had to physically cross the frontiers: Bob Marley had to play for Jamaicans in London; vinyl had to be, literally, shipped. Today, if it’s easy for you to download an mp3 of Ozomatli-L.A.’s ultrapolitical cumbia- rap-rockers-it’s just as simple for someone in Thailand.
“Technology has been huge” in accelerating world fusion, argues Duskis. “Previously, you’d have a kid in Delhi with great ideas in his head, but unless he had access to a $100-an-hour studio, he had no way to articulate that. Now, with a modest investment and a bit of computer savvy, you can make an entire record in your bedroom-and people do.”
The phenomenon truly is global. In Tijuana, the Nortec Collective is making techno beats out of the brass and country sounds of norteño (see page 80). In Havana, bands like Azucar Negra are taking the samba, ragga, and hip hop they hear on foreign radio stations and adding it to salsa to create “timba.” In Africa, homegrown rap rules-in 100 different languages-with bands such as Gelongal (Dakar) and Prophets of Da City (Cape Town) adding a new sound to the streets. In China, rocker Cui Jian fuses Oriental zithers with the sounds of punk, jazz, and Afrobeat. While in Europe, everything goes, as shifting boundaries and people leave a trail of experiments winding from Sarajevo to Madrid to Stockholm.
Such cross-pollination, naturally, upsets world music’s purists, who fear the loss of the traditional forms. But what distinguishes many of these new musicians is the pride they have in their roots; they aren’t throwing anything away or shamelessly copying rock. The Cuban Juan de Marcos González, for example, admits to a suspect youth-“As a student in Havana, I was playing songs by Yes, Procol Harum, Jethro Tull, and King Crimson”-yet he is also the mastermind behind the landmark Cuban son album Buena Vista Social Club.
What unites these musicians is not where they come from but where they are going. Listen to any of the bands profiled here and it’s hard not to hear the future. Our globalized world may be getting smaller, but, hey, the soundtrack is great.
David Hutcheon covers world music for mojo, the British music magazine.
Asian Dub Foundation
They hail from London’s East End, a run-down jumble of Victorian buildings and multistory apartments, home to many of the city’s poorest and newest communities-Somalis, Eastern Europeans, Bengalis. But if you want to know where the Asian Dub Foundation is coming from, you just have to listen to the lyrics: “Will the real Great Britain please step forward? / This is the national identity parade” and “We ain’t ethnic, exotic, or eclectic. / The only E we use is electric.”
A mix of Indian and Pakistani immigrants, the band came together at Community Music, a local youth center where bassist Dr. Das taught technology through music. “Deeder Zaman was a rapper and Pandit G was a DJ but was active in civil rights,” says Das. “Those were the strands we put together and built on as the group grew.” The trio soon added a guitarist, Chadrasonic, and an electronic artist named Sun-J, and the Asian Dub Foundation was born.
ADF take their musical agitprop from the Specials, their sonic aggression from Public Enemy, and their music from-where to start? Bollywood, British punk, the Beastie Boys, drum ‘n’ bass, their parents’ sitar records, even qawwali, devotional music from Pakistan. “It’s not fusion,” argues Das. “It’s the sound of different communities in the same place at the same time.”
That sound was ahead of its time in 1995, when ADF’s debut album, Facts and Fictions, was released to an indifferent shrug from the British music media. So ADF took itself off to Europe, where the band developed a phenomenal stage show and a loyal following.
Returning to Britain in 1997, the Dub Foundation made their mark with the incendiary single “Free Satpal Ram”-a punk-rap-ragga anthem protesting the incarceration of an Indian immigrant who killed a racist attacker in self-defense. With its psychedelic violins and brain-jarring bass lines, “Free Satpal” turned the album Rafi’s Revenge into a smash hit. The shock of seeing these angry young Asians storming the pop charts sparked an “Are they the sound of modern British folk music?” debate in the British press. Ask Dr. Das the same question and he quips, “If you mean folk music as the sound of the people-yeah, that’s us.” — D.H.
In the late 1980s, Marie Daulne journeyed deep into Zaire to live with a Pygmy tribe. Enthralled by the rhythms and vocal stylings of her hosts, Daulne vowed to bring this “wild” music back home to Belgium. At first blush, Daulne might seem like Ry Cooder or Paul Simon-a Westerner determined to translate an exotic sound into a mass-marketable form. But there is a key difference: Daulne was born in the forests of central Africa.
Daulne’s father, a white Belgian, was killed during the revolution that created Zaire. His Bantu wife, pregnant with Marie at the time, fled to the safety of a Pygmy village where Marie was born in 1964. The family eventually escaped to Brussels, where Marie grew up speaking French, singing a cappella in church, and listening to Roberta Flack records at home.
As a young adult, Daulne began exploring her mixed heritage, a search that culminated in her stay among the Pygmies and the founding of Zap Mama, an all-female a cappella group. Blending Pygmy chants, traditional African folk songs, African American rhythms, and even Catholic choral music, the group won wide acclaim for its rhythmic interplay and sheer range of vocalizations. Zap’s interlacing of musical roots wasn’t a novelty act; for Daulne it was, more simply, an act of self-expression.
By the release of A Ma Zone in 1999, Daulne had started integrating electronic elements in her music-an idea that she credits to her mother. “When my mama listened to techno,” Daulne says, “she started to sing, because it was the same rhythm as the music of her village.”
Daulne is currently wrapping up a fifth album-the aptly titled Ancestry in Progress-which deepens her connections to hip hop. Although her music continues to evolve, Daulne’s sound remains part African, part European, part of the moment, part timeless roots. As she’s fond of putting it, “My music is a mix-like me.” — Keith Harris
Democracy on the Downbeat
What does democracy sound like? The Brooklyn-based Antibalas-a “cooperative entity” of 14-plus band members-makes it sound a lot like Afrobeat, that politically charged hybrid of James Brown funk, black-power jazz, and West African highlife. Popularized by Nigeria’s late musical provocateur Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, Afrobeat is no longer confined to Africa, and Antibalas gives the music a globalized, 21st-century kick.
Antibalas, whose name is Spanish for “bulletproof,” is both multiracial and polycultural. They sing in three languages: English, Yoruba, and Spanish. And the musicians-Africans, African Americans, whites, Latinos, and Asian Americans-seamlessly fold Latin horns, reggae bass lines, and soul-jazz keyboards into Afrobeat.
Although it fully embraces cultural globalization, Antibalas remains a brother in arms with the anti-globalization movement, playing monthly benefits to protest, for example, the bombing of Vieques, the violence in Sierra Leone, and hunger in New York City. But politics never overwhelms the party: Antibalas’ incomparable chemistry makes it one of the tightest, most electric live acts in the city.
Antibalas’ approach, says Mexican Italian bandleader Martin Perna, “is the difference between a Happy Meal and a home-cooked meal.” In an era of multimillion-dollar videos for two-man rap acts, the very idea of a band can start to seem outdated. But Antibalas remains a thriving collective, relying on a communal decision-making process akin to their street-activist counterparts. “Sometimes there’s so much voting I can’t even remember if I voted or not,” laughs keyboardist Victor Axelrod.
Antibalas believes that Afrobeat’s jigsaw of polyrhythmic complexity lends itself to alternative community building. Each member adds a sonic puzzle piece that makes sense only when interlocked with the others. “War Is a Crime,” for example, begins with a classic Afrobeat groove-constructed of burbling keys, a thumb-slap bass line, and stuttering drums-which gives way to horn licks and a screeching baritone sax solo. “If it’s played right, the ego is dissolved and everybody is one,” says Perna. “Afrobeat is bigger than all of us, and learning how to surrender to that is a very exciting thing.” — Jeff Chang
A Hopeful Vagabond
Manu Chao was born in Paris to Spanish parents. He is, in that sense, a European. But listen to Chao’s music — his reedy voice wandering through Spanish, English, Arabic, and French; the rub-a-dub strums of his acoustic guitar; snippets of Subcomandante Marcos speeches; and simple rhythm patterns whimsically recycled on his eight-track. This isn’t the sound of what Chao calls “economic Europe.” It be longs instead, he says, to “the actual Europe that economic Europe tries to kill.”
Chao’s Europe is the Europe of refugees and exiles, of African and Arab immigrants, mixing on street corners and in Metro stations. This “actual Europe” is the Europe of the future, Chao insists, while economic Europe is “like the Titanic.” Think of Chao’s music — with its shout-outs to undocumented workers and desaparecidos — as what will still be playing after the ship goes down.
Chao began making music for a world of migrants and misfits in 1987 when he co-founded Mano Negra, a polyglot band of Europeans, North Africans, and gypsies that came together in the post-punk Parisian underground. They would soon be joined by Argentineans and Nicaraguans and concoct a wild-style carnival of rock, cowpunk, Algerian rai, and Afro — Cuban rhythms they called “patchanka”-Manu-speak for a righteous postcolonial party.
When Mano Negra fell apart in 1994, Chao lit out for border meccas like Tijuana and Gibraltar, “two central points of the planet’s fever.” 1998’s Clandestino was Chao’s first solo travelogue, a collection of fiery protest songs masquerading as dreamy, new-world-order blues. It begins with Chao declaring, “To run is my destiny,” and ends with him “lost in the 20th century,” waiting for “the last wave” to wash the world away.
2001’s Próxima Estación: Esperanza (Next Stop: Hope) saw Chao shaking off his cynicism. Suddenly, his guitar shuffles found themselves wrapped in punchy horns and playful rhyme-alongs that hearkened back to his anarchic patchanka days. “My best teacher of hope has been the Third World,” Chao says. “The people with the most hope in the world are in the worst situations. It’s the hope you need to survive.” — Josh Kun
Arabic in Paris
It’s late summer, 2001, and French Algerian musician Rachid Taha is feeling bullish. His latest album, Made in Medina, has been picked up by an American label and released to rave reviews; he’s profiled in an August 11 Billboard magazine feature titled “Arabic Music Moves West”; and he’s preparing for a breakout tour of the States.
But then Osama bin Laden enters the equation. Although Taha has performed in America before (and even recorded parts of Medina in New Orleans), he wisely shelves his plans to conquer America and instead heads off for a tour of Cambodia and Vietnam.
This isn’t the first time war has disrupted Taha’s career. “When I released my album Barbés in 1991, it was banned from French radio stations. They said it was ‘too sensitive’ because of the Gulf War,” says Taha. When 9/11 happened, he says, “I thought, ‘Not again.'”
For lack of an adequate moniker, Taha’s music is often called rai, that flamenco-infused Arabic pop that so offended Algeria’s fundamentalists they began executing its singers. For many of those musicians, the only safe alternative was to cross the Mediterranean to France. Taha was already there, his parents having immigrated when he was 10.
Taha cut his teeth on punk, nurturing his rebel sentiments as an outcast subjected to constant racial abuse. His first band, Carte de Sejour, was named after France’s equivalent of a green card, something he had to produce every time the police stopped him in the street.
Taha’s concerns, then as now, were racism and civil rights. But if his lyrics exalt the plight of the outsider, the music itself demonstrates his politics of inclusion. Strains of rai are the glue that holds together an unlikely mix of heavy metal, house, funk, zydeco, and Afrobeat. “I’m not a rai man,” Taha explains. “People say I am because I was born in Algeria, but this is rock: The guitars are at the front and there are African and techno influences.”
With Made in Medina landing on several U.S. critics’ best-of lists last year, Taha may yet treat America to his own Arabic Invasion. But by now, he’s learned to be pragmatic: “I’d like to,” he says wryly, “but you never know what is going to happen.” — D.H.
When an adolescent Tom Cruise wanted to lose his virginity in the 1983 film Losin’ It, he headed to a mythical, backward, south-of-the-border wonderland that one of his buddies called “the nastiest, raunchiest, most bitchinest place in the world…Tia Juana!” The Tijuana that Cruise found was one of shady jails, anything-goes strip joints, scamming car customizers, and mile after mile of dusty dirt roads where no gringo law applied. It’s everything that the music of the Nortec Collective-a five-artist crew of electro-heads reared in the real Tijuana of binational commerce and cross-cultural traffic-turns upside down with its shimmering hybrid of traditional Mexican music and international techno.
The Tijuana electronica scene that gave birth to Nortec took off the same year that Losin’ It invaded Tijuana’s streets. But it wasn’t until one night in 1999 that Pepe Mogt and his fellow frontera machinists started pairing techno with the brassy, percussive, and seriously sample — ready music they had always heard right outside their door: banda sinaloense and norteño-the German-inspired tuba, accordion, and tambora oompah music of northern Mexico.
“We realized it was a real special sound, that mixture of electronics and norteño and banda sinaloense,” says Mogt, who was the first to sample the music and then convince his friends to make new tracks using it as raw material. “That night we recorded a CD and it became our first sampler.” That local sampler has since grown into a full-length album (The Tijuana Sessions Vol. 1), international tours-even a Volvo commercial.
But the Collective still makes music from Tijuana and for Tijuana. Their tech-Mex mixes give distinctive voice to the modern, relentlessly misunderstood metropolis they all grew up in. “If you go to Revolución Ave.,” says Mogt of Tijuana’s notorious main tourist drag, “there’s a club playing hip hop, a club playing techno, mariachis playing in the streets, and then a big pickup with tinted windows playing banda. All of that is Nortec for me. Take all of that as if you’re standing in the middle of Revolución Ave. and turn it into songs.” — J.K.