Mixing the waters

There’s been a sea change in what people consider world music. As recently as 10 years ago it was seen as something from over there. Exotic ethnic sounds from the backwaters of Africa, Asia or South America. Booming drum choirs, jagged atonal melodies, gongs and bells and marimbas.

Now the waters have washed away that delusion; world music is all that and more. Oh, there are seas that sit mighty and powerful in their own identity. And there are streams and currents that flow into and from them mingling and mixing in the depths until a new and unclassifiable groove surfaces.

Consider Ekova, a group made up of singer-cellist Dierdre Dubois from California, percussionist Arash Khalatbari from Iran, guitar-oud player Nehdi Haddab from Algeria. They met while playing in the experimental acoustic music scene around Paris during the ‘90s. Although they started as an acoustic group, their second album, Space Lullabies and Other Fantasmagore, is laced with electronic programming and dance beats.

“What I see when I go to a store, world music is arranged by country,” says Dubois. “Where do you put Ekova? You can’t put Ekova in a country. Of course we’re on the planet. We are doing music from the world.

“We haven’t found the label that we feel fits, so we kind of let people label it by themselves. We’ve been put in world music, pop, trip hop, all over. Here in France the Ekova album has been found in the Greek music, it’s been put under rai, Eastern European.”

That’s quite a cruise, but not out of character for a band with a sound that encompasses influences from Pentangle and the Cocteau Twins to Indonesian and Indian music. And don’t try to figure out what language Dubois is singing in. Most of the time she’s just making up sounds, sort of scat singing for the electronica crowd.

“All music is world music,” says Ismael Ahmed, director of Dearborn’s Arab Community Center and creative director of this weekend’s three-day Concert of Colors. “The blues can be played right alongside Portuguese music. I think Latin music and African music have the same drums. Arabic gnawan has something in common with Irish music.”

And some bands embrace more than one tradition in their music. Los Lobos and War, both groups combining American rock with Los Angeles Chicano sounds, are among the most well-known performers at the Concert of Colors. They are also, along with the Motown axis of Temptations Review-Contours-Marvelettes and the Tom Tom Club, high-profile American acts easily floating in the same pool as imports such as Cibo Matto (Japan), Lágbájá (Nigeria) or Solas (Ireland).

The world music label that started out as a way to categorize and market ethnic musicians around the planet has evolved into a gentle rain of sounds that move back and forth, swirling into a new musical consciousness. Africans try on Western pop. American jazz gets with the Latin groove. Indian ragas add an electronic beat. Native American chants mix with New Age grooves. Wave after wave of sounds crash on new shores every day.

The Marley factor

It’s been a long time coming. There have always been musical mixings and ethnic enclaves. America has seen its share of Latin and Caribbean crazes from early jazz to tango and cha-cha to calypso to bossa nova, but one figure towers over most in creating what has become the world music culture: Bob Marley.

Marley’s reggae in the early 1970s created a level of international superstardom never before or after achieved by a musician coming from outside the American pop net, and so distinctly aligned with African roots. It didn’t hurt that he came along at a time when American rock was losing its sense of social justice, that he sang in English and that his record label, Island, purposely pushed the electric guitar sound up front — not to mention that the curious, ganja-smoking Rastafarian subculture proved appealing around the globe.

“The thing about Bob Marley is he had all the elements of a modern rock star, just in terms of youth and looks and exoticism and sexual charisma and all those kind of things,” said New York music writer Greg Tate, whose Burnt Sugar post-jazz fusion ensemble performs in the Concert of Colors. “Marley could address the world, address spirituality, and address sexuality all in one context.”

Marley’s death in 1981 was certainly a tragedy that left a void never again filled, though, for a while, record labels and promoters tried. Former Wailer Peter Tosh didn’t have the same charisma, even as he managed to have a formidable presence until his own tragic death. However, without Marley catching most of the attention, a rich sea of reggae artists came to the fore and the ebb and flow of reggae with other popular music styles continued — notably dancehall with rap.

For a while, Marley’s former label tried to promote Nigerian King Sunny Ade to the reggae superstar’s level. It didn’t happen; but it did shine a light on Africa and helped crack open a huge Afropop stream that had skirted major attention even though such artists as Manu Dibango and Fela Kuti had international profiles.

“I think that King Sunny was really the first time that people saw that there was a commercial audience for a tour by a band of African musicians who didn’t necessarily have a hit record out,” said Tate, who wrote about Ade’s first U.S. tour in Village Voice as akin to the Second Coming. “People got a sense that this is a vibe that we haven’t felt before that we definitely want to feel. … People really surrendered to the trancelike power of this Yoruba music.”

Indeed, King Sunny Ade was something else with his phalanx of musicians, talking drums, ethereal pedal steel guitar and men in long, colorful robes dancing in unison. It was a far cry from Kuti’s show, where near-naked women shook ass. And quickly after he hit the scene, others such as Chief Commander Ebenezer Obey, Salif Keita and Youssou N’Dour followed.

By then the dam was broken and the waters rushed ahead. Musicians from every culture — Pakistan’s Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Tuvan throat singers, Madagascar’s Tarika, the Bulgarian Women’s Choir — stepped forward with sounds that rained upon the developed world with fresh life.

There had been a trickle of rock stars going back as far as the Beatles (tapping into the sitar via Ravi Shankar) finding sustenance and musical renewal for themselves in foreign lands, but post-Marley more and more rock and pop stars dived into foreign influences and collaborated with artists from abroad. “Desert Rose,” Algerian Cheb Mami’s collaboration with pop star Sting, is only the most recent example of that trend, that reached a high-water mark when Paul Simon built his entire Graceland album around the sounds of South African pop in 1986.

“I think Graceland was a good thing,” says Ahmed of the Grammy winner. “We’ve been in such a narrow place musically, anything that opens that up helps. Paul Simon, Peter Gabriel, Sting, David Byrne They’ve all made a contribution with what they’ve done. They’ve not only recorded themselves but they’ve helped other artists to get out there and record.”

Electric whirlpool

So, even without another Bob Marley-sized superstar, the music of the world seems to have arrived. With a younger generation for whom multiculturalism is a fact of life, musicians borrow freely across cultures as though borders never existed. With the advent of sampling, loops and other electronic influences in the pop world, the mixing of the waters has come to a new cusp. But one that has rippled throughout human history.

Recent musicological scholarship has shown that even what is considered the most Western of Western music — European classical — is actually derived from Arab and Persian instruments and forms. Which, in a way, shows why modern musical melding has been so easy to achieve.

Ekova’s Dubois, in talking about connecting with her band mates, points out: “The medieval mystic, ancient sacred aspect is a very close cousin to a lot of Middle Eastern music. I later found out that during the Middle Ages, Western musicians were already really being inspired by Middle Eastern music. These influences were really widespread in all the arts — textiles, painting, music. Since I had the influence of Dead Can Dance and that kind of Gothic influence, we already had something in common. We communicated freely from the very first time we played together.”

Still there are barriers to stronger public acceptance in the United States. One is language. Reggae artists sing in English and the most popular Latin artists — Ricky Martin, Gloria Estefan — perform primarily in English too, as do the Celtic groups. But Africans, Asians and others have wider gulfs to traverse. Only Benin’s Angelique Kidjo has managed climb the American pop charts, with “Batonga” a few years back. Works that go over huge in Europe — Youssou N’Dour’s “Seven Seconds” duet with Neneh Cherry, for instance — are mere sprinkles of mist on this side of the ocean.

And touring, the other route to recognition, has its own challenges for international performers. Just last week, for instance, Tuvan singer Sainkho Namchylak dropped out because she was denied a visa.

“The INS has started killing visas for people in a big way,” says Ahmed, who has turned to congressmen such as John Dingell, David Bonior and John Conyers to help save tours by foreign groups. “It’s American essentialism, our lack of knowledge of what’s valuable out there and a little bit of fear of immigrants.”

But events like the Concert of Colors, the Womad (World of Music and Dance) Festivals, Houston’s world music festival and a few others are bringing that knowledge more into the open. Concert of Colors was started nine years ago as a one-day event and is now a year-round series with the flagship three-day festival this year a part of the official Detroit 300 events.

“It’s the biggest world music festival on the continent,” Ahmed asserts. “We were always second, third or fourth to the Womad Festival out of Seattle, but this year I think we’re bigger than that. …

“Where is world music going? I think it’s going to grow as a phenomena. … I don’t see it ever going away or diminishing in size and scope. …. I like it when someone from central Africa sits down with someone from Ireland (Afro Celt Sound System). … Sitar music in a techno club is not unusual. Angelique Kidjo opening up for Macy Gray at Comerica Park. There’s a bleed of world music into everything. There’s a growing diversity of the population. What functioned as music and culture just won’t function as that anymore.”

Music lovers would hope that Ahmed’s words are prophetic. The waters of Babylon have been roiled. Let’s see how big the splash is.

The Concert of Colors is at Chene Park in downtown Detroit (at Atwater and Chene, on the Detroit River). The official concert schedule can be found at www.concertofcolors.org.

Be sure to check out the rest of MT's special features in celebration of the Concert of Colors:

  • Amina — Defying categorization, this Tunisian Parisienne’s sensual and tender voice seems at ease floating between the worlds of drum and bass, jungle, Asian and traditional West African beats.
  • Burnt Sugar — Having updated Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew with a multilayered mix of electric, dreamy funk, this ever-evolving jazz-session collective just keeps getting deeper.
  • Cheb Mami — An Algerian native whose return to the desert breaks musical borders. Sting calls him “one of the greatest voices in world music today.”
  • Cibo Matto — Japanese-born master sound chefs who serve up an irresistible stew of funk, hip hop, hardcore, melody and fractured pop.
  • Lágbájá — A colorful, enigmatic post-Fela phenomenon, mixing elements of Afrobeat and drumming with Western pop twists.
  • Lo´ Jo — A French group that brings Europe and Africa together with the sweet strains of a seductive dance ... a musical trance.
  • Los Lobos — Quintessentially American, this long-lived East Los Angeles-based combo mixes rock, ranchera and more with an authenticity that can never be questioned.
  • Poncho Sanchez — This Latin-jazz bandleader extraordinaire keeps the Cal Tjader flame alive with his Afro-Cuban pulsations.

Larry Gabriel is a writer, musician and former Metro Times editor. Send comments to [email protected]