Much like globalism's more widely discussed political and economic aspects, the World Music movement, if you can call it that, is in constant flux.
This convergence of indigenous traditions has been both celebrated and condemned, heralded as the dawn of a global utopia or the death of cultural authenticity.
"If you break from tradition in a really tasteful way, and the music sounds good, then I don't think there's any issue," says Martín Perna of Ocote Soul Sounds, one of the bands performing in this summer's free World Music Series on the Colorado College campus. "But if you're like, 'All right, here's this solemn funeral music that we're gonna do on Casio keyboards now,' and it sounds horrible, then it's clearly a bad decision."
Although it's not a decision that necessarily wards off commercial success: Deep Forest's electronic appropriation of pygmy chants into pop music sold more than 10 million copies and won one of the early World Music Grammys. And the homogenized histrionics popularized by arena hogs like Lord of the Dance and the irrepressible Yanni are unfortunate at best.
While the term "world music" wasn't coined until the 1960s, it does have its antecedents — not all of them honorable. Back in the '50s, mainstream America's campy fascination with exotic cultures led to Martin Denny playing faux Polynesian music, complete with bird call impersonations, on Dick Clark's American Bandstand. The same era saw a black church pastor's son named John Roland Redd don a turban and change his name to Korla Pandit, the host of a popular TV show in which he seduced female viewers by playing a Hammond organ while staring mysteriously into the camera.
After that, things got better (or for some, I guess, worse). The Beatles and Stones became obsessed with sitars. German techno forefathers Can recorded what they liked to call "ethnic forgeries." Peter Gabriel founded the WOMAD (World of Music, Arts and Dance) festivals, and Paul Simon went to Graceland via South Africa.
More recent examples range from the runaway success of Sri Lankan political singer/rapper M.I.A. to the more traditional Afro-Cuban Buena Vista Social Club, whose association with American producer Ry Cooder and German filmmaker Wim Wenders led to a self-titled album that moved 8 million units — making it the best-selling single world music release of all time. There are also insanely eclectic artists like South Africa's BLK JKS, France's Manu Chao and Haiti's Boukman Eksperyans.
And no one's quite sure what to make of the strangely addictive Internet phenom Die Antwoord, creators of an Afrikaaner hybrid of hip-hop and performance art who've just signed to Interscope Records.
Music has long been ahead of the curve when it comes to breaking down cultural barriers, whether it be white audiences embracing "race music" or the federal government sending artists like Dizzy Gillespie and Louis Armstrong overseas as Cold War cultural ambassadors. And as with most artistic innovations, the various strains of world music have been met with their own backlash.
After all, blues purists didn't exactly welcome the infiltration of rock elements; rock traditionalists burned disco records; pop fans insisted hip-hop was not actually music.
If, as an artist, you stay within strict (and sometimes arbitrary) traditional boundaries, you risk being frozen in the past. But step too far forward, and you become a sellout.
It's a credit to this summer's World Music Series that none of the acts seem inclined toward stagnation or sellout. Even so, KRCC-FM 91.5 program director Jeff Bieri says the bands were chosen, to at least some degree, for their ability to fit in with the station's playlist. While the station still co-presents the concerts with the Pikes Peak Library District (which founded the series in 2005) and Colorado College Summer Programs, PPLD budget cuts have left KRCC to pay for the talent.
"A lot of the stuff in the past that the Pikes Peak Library District booked was almost too traditional for us to play on the air," Bieri says. "They were things that are always very cool, like the Tuvan throat singers. To see and hear those guys perform live was amazing, but there's not a lot of room for them on radio."
Bieri sees this year's lineup as evidence of world music's vitality.
"I think that's the trend, that it's become a global village now and everybody's pulling from different cultures and melding it into their own. American pop culture is a pretty well-worn wheel. So for a group like Vampire Weekend, going to other cultures to sort of mine some of their gems can be advantageous."
Meanwhile, international acts have considerable incentive to strive for recognition and success in the United States: "That's probably the holy grail," figures Bieri, "to reach that sort of acceptance. So I would imagine it goes both ways, you know?"
One thing Bieri says he never imagined was that radical Nigerian bandleader Fela Kuti would garner the mainstream popularity to become the subject of a posthumous Broadway hit. The musical Fela!, which opened at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre last November, has racked up 11 Tony nominations.
"Fela's drummer, Tony Allen, was actually one of the acts we were considering here for the World Music Series as well," says Bieri of the artist who's recorded with everyone from King Sunny Adé to Blur's Damon Albarn and the Clash's Paul Simonon. "But, you know, I was trying to line this thing up in December and January, so getting a foothold in a tour can be pretty difficult. I had a [Senegalese] band called Orchestra Baobab lined up late last year, but they had to cancel the gig because they couldn't get their visas in time.
"So, yeah, travel is definitely a problem, which may also be why I went ahead and booked a couple of Americanized bands."
While all the artists in the World Music Series are well worth catching, the band that absolutely should not be missed is Bomba Estéreo, which kicks off the series Monday, June 14.
The group was formed in Bogotá, Colombia, by guitarist Simón Mejía and vocalist Liliana Saumet, who has been compared by NPR to both M.I.A. and Bow Wow Wow's Annabella Lwin.
Emerging from the city's underground electronic music scene, the group made its recording debut in 2006. Its electro-tropical pastiche of contemporary and traditional influences has since earned accolades from the likes of the L.A. Weekly, URB Magazine and the New York Times, which described the six-piece band's music as "kaleidoscopic and danceable, mingling the clip-clop bounce of cumbia and another Colombian rhythm, champeta, with echoey guitar, reggae backbeats and the singing and rapping of Liliana Saumet."
"We are currently invited to a lot of world music festivals," says Mejía, "because I think maybe Bomba Estéreo is not such an easy group to label. It's like, yeah, we have a little bit of funk music, but it's not funk; and we have electronica, but it's not electronica; and we have hip-hop, but it's not hip-hop. So it becomes world music."
Mejía does see a commonality between his music and that of other bands at world music festivals. For one thing, he says, they all tend to incorporate the folkloric elements of their respective cultures. And for another, most share an interest in African-rooted rhythms.
While the group's songs are mostly in Spanish, Mejía says he was raised on American blues and '60s rock.
"The first song I learned on guitar was Guns 'N' Roses' 'Sweet Child o' Mine,'" he says with a wistful laugh. "I really love that guitar solo and I wanted to learn to play it."
Bomba Estéreo's first international release, the appropriately named Blow Up, is on the Los Angeles-based Nacional label, which is also home to Los Fabulosos Cadillacs and Manu Chao. The band has particular reverence for the latter artist, whom Mejía applauds for political songwriting and infectious rhythms: "I think that for a European, he has a very Latin soul."
Less probably, Mejía has also come to admire Brian Eno, the extremely English artist who, in addition to producing U2, incorporated a plethora of exotic musical samplings into his collaborations with David Bowie, David Byrne and the Talking Heads.
Mejía says he didn't really get into Eno until after being chosen as one of the three music finalists in a 2010 international arts mentorship program. If selected as the winner, the Colombian musician will begin a year-long collaboration with Eno, who at Mejía's age was getting kicked out of Roxy Music for his edgy, sometimes dissonant synthesizer work.
"I think that everyone who makes electronic music nowadays has to be indebted to Brian Eno," says Mejía, "because he's a pioneer in working with synthesizers and electronic compositions. He's a visionary musician not only in pop music, but also in experimenting with music as sound."
As a finalist, Mejía has already been flown to London to meet Eno. "I showed him the Colombian map and talked about Colombian traditional music and Bomba Estéreo," he recalls. "And he talked to me about art projects he's doing. We talked about a little bit of everything."
Both Mejía and Eno share an abiding respect for the role of Africa in contemporary music. As Eno once said in a Wired interview, "Classical music is music without Africa. It represents old-fashioned hierarchical structures, ranking, all the levels of control." Whereas it can be argued that African music, particularly its rhythmic elements, avoids the top-down compositional philosophy in favor of a much more universal approach.
"What I've been finding," says Mejía, "is that all rhythms, especially the ones that happened here in Colombia, have very deep African roots. I think all dance music around the world has a link with Africa."
Crossing the borders
Listening to the musicians who will be featured in this year's series, it's hard not to be optimistic about the future of world music, even if the label itself is subject to debate.
"World music is kind of a weird term in itself," says Ocote's Perna. "I think it's more a reflection of the kind of bubble that we live in here in the United States than anything else. Globalization hit the world before any of us who are playing this music and are writing about it were even born. So I think a lot of it is a dialogue that happens across different borders, and it kind of frustrates the attempts of people to categorize it and keep it under their thumb."
Born on the East Coast, Perna founded the Afrobeat group Antibalas — who are featured as the live musicians in the current Fela! Broadway production — before starting Ocote Soul Sounds in Austin, Texas, with fellow multi-instrumentalist Adrian Quesada. While both are of Mexican parentage, Perna says their musical influences extend beyond that culture.
"We grew up with as much music from the Caribbean, from Puerto Rico and Cuba, and from hip-hop, as we did Mexican music. So we're trying to filter those traditions through our own voice, and Ocote is what we come up with."
Even the most traditionally inclined group on the program, San Francisco's Rupa & the April Fishes, features Boots Riley from Oakland hip-hop band the Coup on its new album.
"It's kind of a gypsy jazz alternative folk album," says Bieri of Este Mundo, the late 2009 release from the group Time Out hailed for its "global agit-pop."
Recording for the venerable Putumayo World Music label, Rupa & the April Fishes feature an eclectic instrumental lineup, including trumpets, accordion, cello and guitar. And frontwoman Rupa Marya, whose parents were both born in India, knows something about cross-cultural migration, having grown up in France, India and America.
"What I hear in them, when I listen to their music, is DeVotchKa," Bieri adds, referring to the Denver band now on the road supporting Muse. "It's like a female DeVotchKa, with the Old World Eastern European thing going on."
Despite the traditional elements that find their way into all these bands' repertoires, there's no mistaking these forward-looking musicians for staunch preservationists.
"I'm hoping that it's not too contemporary," says Bieri of this year's lineup. "We'll have to reassess after the summer's over."
But what the promoters do know is that, budget cuts notwithstanding, the series is too good to abandon, as are the evolving musical traditions it celebrates.
"I remember seeing [Mali musician] Issa Bagayogo when he was here last year," recalls Bieri, "and his show was what convinced me we needed to keep this thing going. It's been hugely successful, and my feeling was that it's just a shame to let it fade away."
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