An interlude in the record bins

Saturday, June 04, 2011

This is going to be an odd post in my Music of Mali series in that it is going to feature no musicians from Mali. Please bear with me.

In 1969 Nonesuch Explorer, a record label that specialized in anthropological recordings of tribal and ethnic music, brought out Goro Yamaguchi's album A Bell Ringing in The Empty Sky (I'm pretty sure, but not 100% certain, the video above is a track from that record).

When it was released, it was difficult to find the album, much less hear it played on the radio. You might hear it late at night on the radio or find it randomly filed someplace in an off-beat record store, but the odds were against either. I found it in a large, and faintly eccentric, record store in downtown Milwaukee. It was the first non-American/European record I ever bought.

All of Nonesuch's records faced that problem, as well as music from Brazil, Ireland, Latin America, Spain, Greece, India (represented by Ravi Shankar, popularized by the Beatles) and a few other oddities -- like the amusingly ridiculous musical "archeologist" Elizabeth Waldo. There was no place for any of these records, and so they fell through the cracks if they were carried at all.

Meanwhile, as I've discussed in the earlier posts in this series (Father & Son, 14 years later, Torn from today's headlines, Ex-pats in Paris and Unscheduled comparison), West African music had been taken to the New World via the slave trade where it evolved in the relative isolation of the Age of Sail, eventually to return to Africa via American recordings and Cuban workers where it had a great impact on contemporary African musicians. 

Many of these same musicians then spent time in Europe where there was a music circuit they could tour. Of course, they also made recordings and -- like A Bell ringing in an Empty Sky -- they had difficulty getting airtime or placement of their albums in record stores. 

That problem persisted until 1987. In that year a group of promoters met and decided to bundle it together under a genre they called World Music. They planned festivals, awards, worked the radio stations and, most importantly of all, delivered browser cards to record stores so the music could easily be binned. While still a niche market, the ability to properly bin the records, and for customers to find it, greatly increased the reach of the new genre.

Today there is an increasing push-back against the genre's name. It implies a split, and to some a second class status, from European and American music. Also, large swaths of the world's music -- Bollywood, J-Pop and Chinese pop are conspicuously missing from the World Music library. 

I doubt it matters with the internet replacing record stores as the source of music. Searches can be more complex and focused, and besides -- as we've seen with M.I.A.  (or our much beloved Japanese emo screamo punk band Z for that matter)-- there are other avenues for musicians to market their work directly to their audience these days. 

As an example, I'll end with the following video I found on Youtube. I don't know who the band is, or the woman singer, or why a Peruvian group seems to be working with some French Canadians, but they're obviously promoting themselves in a new and different manner than from the days of scrambling to get air time and space in a record bin.


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