There are critics out there made so uncomfortable by how foreign music is marketed to Western listeners, especially Europeans, that they’ve sworn off any sort of foreign style — charming music, maybe, but to like it would contribute to imperialism, colonialism, fetishization of the Other, and such. One shouldn’t blame the music for its marketing, and actually, one convenient thing about the “world music” tag is that it’s just a tag. Below find four foreign albums (well, Aki Kumar works in San Francisco) that target the international market and have nothing in common besides that. Repeat after me, nothing in common. Don’t conflate them. Don’t fetishize the Other.
Aki Kumar: Aki Goes to Bollywood (Little Village Foundation)
Plenty of gifted bluesmen work in the Bay Area, but only one of them has crossed traditional blues with retro Indian pop in a playful, let’s-see-what-happens genre experiment, described in his own liner notes as “a marketing nightmare, an impossible sell, a potential financial failure, a slap in the face to both the Eastern and Western cultures that nurtured him as a child both culturally and musically…” Not to mention a madly arbitrary novelty record and a successful, exciting musical mesh.
Lacking sufficient knowledge of the Bollywood soundtrack to comment on the verisimilitude of his replication, I suppose I might be overestimating the record’s value as a gauntlet. But as traditional bluesmen go, Kumar writes unusually inventive songs, inverting the blues scale into an exuberant major key or a creepier-sounding scale that must be Indian, bursting into glossolalia just like scatting, skipping into tempo shifts that sound totally natural, and generally finding a way to escape convention. The Bollywood influence manifests itself in a band sound that gets down and dirty the way blues is supposed to, while leaving individual instruments shining in their own lurid light, like the rather loud basslines or the bangy piano chords or the liquid organ juice dripping from the ceiling or Kumar’s aching, strangled harmonica; particularly hooked on the intersection between the electric guitar and the harsher, buzzier, bristlier cadence of the sitar, the album nails a sharp drone whose sweaty fatigue coexists with dogged energy. Against conservatives, whether blues purists or those who feel he’s insulting Indian culture, the typical argument would be that he celebrates both genres, but that’s too easy — just as the conservatives would say, he also disrespects them. It’s rather irresistible.
Through magical synthetic syncretism, he revitalizes the blues, a genre that hasn’t changed much for a while, and he also adds edge and cognitive dissonance to Bollywood pop, which often turns sickly sweet. My favorite of all these postmod fantasy songs is “Goin’ to Bombay,” in which he sings about his hometown the way Mississippi bluesmen used to sing about the Delta.
Lakuta: Brothers and Sisters (Tru Thoughts Ltd)
One needn’t fault this international, England-based Afropop band for the inclusive, universal humanist one-worldism their lineup implies —assembled from Kenya, Tanzania, Ghana, Malaysia, Spain, and England, these musicians have found a certain band chemistry. One can fault them, though, for their generic sound, generic politics, and the fetishization of Africa typical among Europeans co-opting Afropop for commercial purposes.
Although their slick rhythm guitar on first impression sounds African to me, as it would to the European crossover audience the album is aimed at, I dare you to identify a particular subgenre, a regional style, anything beyond an umbrella term like “Afropop.” Their press release cites benga, a Kenyan pop style that sounds rather different, and Soweto, a township in Johannesburg whose dominant pop style, mbaqanga, I suppose comes a little closer in the rhythm guitar, as well as “Latin rhythms.” I’ll take their word for it — the cheerful guitar hooks and syncopated drumrolls and hyperactive horn section blasting out big anthemic riffs in unison combine to produce a cunningly bland, nonspecific funk that signifies only as an abstract representation of African Music, sticking to common denominators instantly recognizable from the international stage. On one endless groove after another, they clatter and tinkle and lilt with marked mildness; their interlocking guitar hooks are models of professional teamwork, their corny brass politely supplementary. Although they have a tendency to jam on for rather long amounts of time, Siggi Mwasote also sings lyrics, in English, usually with socially conscious themes; although “Bata Boy” targets homophobia and “So Sue Us” abuses that eternal straw man, the music business executive, elsewhere their protest songs appear to lack targets. A typical verse goes like this: “This is for all those women and all those children that have been belittled and set aside/this is for all those families and those fathers that have been marginalized/we will not stand for it/we will not allow it/we will not let this happen.”
“World music” doesn’t exist; it’s not a genre but a lazy term used by Westerners to denote any number of foreign pop styles that don’t necessarily have much to do with each other. If it were a genre, this album would qualify.
Metin Batur/Mamed Dzafarov: Kirim Sarkilari (Iber Prodüksiyon)
Since I don’t usually go for instrumental violin-and-piano twosomes even if the twosome happens to be a Turkish duo paying tribute to Crimean folk music, this album’s direct, lovely, crisp, catchy oomph hit me hard. Basic, elegant melodies courtesy of violinist Metin Batur combine with basic, elegant chords from pianist Mamed Dzafarov with no secret ingredient, and that’s the secret ingredient.
I don’t wish to offend classical aesthetes by rattling off a list of reasons why I don’t often listen to their music, but this album could have suffered from any number of problems — excess asceticism, instrumentalists showing off, an overly prissy ideal of beauty, an overly florid sense of romanticism, especially the European kind whereby the musicians play in an open square while listeners dine outside at a nearby bistro watching a crimson sunset, feeling the wind blow through their hair. Instead, Batur and Dzafarov embrace a strategy so minimalist it’s almost abrasive if not for the hummability quotient. Batur picks a tune, usually an extremely pretty one if slow and melancholy on what sounds like an Eastern European scale (specific to Crimea?), plays it once, plays it again, plays it again, maybe plays a bridge, maybe plays an elaboration, maybe plays another related one, plays the original again, and that’s all folks, song’s over, on to the next one, which repeats the trick, as does the one after. Dzafarov backs these melodies as simply as he can, which makes his occasional arpeggio roll all the more striking, and sometimes he’ll play solo for a few measures in the middle to let the music breathe. The melodies, simultaneously plain and twisted, carry an internal logic all their own, and Batur’s playing is pleasurable for textural reasons (sharp, slightly nasal, layered the way perfume is layered) as well as tempo reasons (cautious, deliberate, mockingly self-aware); the resulting mood mixes sadness and glee in unpredictable proportions, suffused with a romantic but not therefore romanticized wonder at the beauty in simplicity. The album’s hardly a triumph of music for its own sake — the stark format makes a statement. But it would indeed suit a bistro exactly, or any sufficiently relaxed environment with space to notice details and hum along.
I can’t believe this hasn’t been done before. Isn’t that the point? This particular iteration sounds great, that’s all.
Choose Amore, Choose Love (Star Recording Inc)
Although the international ballad style is associated with the Spanish language, you can find the vast majority of this music sung in English, on TV/movie soundtracks — speaking the lingua franca is so suave and sophisticated, you know? The soundtrack to a Filipino drama called Dolce Amore epitomizes the style while giving itself a new name and attempting to make its own drama-unrelated dent on the pop charts.
Maybe I’d enjoy these songs if they were sung in Filipino (one exception, also the catchiest one, is), thus shielding myself from understanding lyrics that resemble literal greeting-card verse and might inspire the love letter’s recipient to break up with the sender or perhaps produce a can of mace. But even in another language, the vocal melodrama would indicate similar sentiments, because even as ballad singing goes, the breathy, tortured, lovelorn displays of narcissistic emotion here represent a nadir. Just as Carl Wilson famously failed to identify Celine Dion’s genre and eventually picked the all-purpose “schmaltz,” these divas, including the drama’s male and female leads, don’t employ a taggable singing style that exists outside the realm of the international ballad but rather the vocal modes megastars like Dion have long since made the international ballad’s hallmark. Words are pronounced very precisely, vowels are lengthened, exhalations are amplified, a portrait of the perfect, sincere, shallow lover is affectionately painted. The singers on this compilation don’t bellow like Dion; pseudointimacy is their goal, and they remain inanely tender even as the music, what with its booming drums and ringing plucked acoustic guitar, grandly sentimental Hollywood strings, builds to automatic inspirational climaxes. So these songs also fall short of Dion’s inspiring vulgarity, prettily puttering along instead, tied up in ribbons and bows, bathed in high-fructose corn syrup. And when two songs that open the album later appear in different versions by marginally different singers, the sweet nothings start to become repetitive.
For a ballad to perform its intended function, it must itself produce desire and itself be sexy. These songs espouse a type of emotional confession that sounds insincere when stripped of the erotic. Don’t fall for love, it’s a corporate trap! Since these albums always sell millions, I guess millions of people consider that a turn-on.