Unnatural selection

Wednesday, August 03, 2011


I've been languidly writing a series of posts about the music of Mali. Using contemporary Malian musicians as a backdrop, I've noted that West African music was taken to the New World via the slave trade. There, in the isolation of the Age of Sail, it evolved separately in the U.S., the Caribbean, Latin America and Brazil.

In the mid 20th century the music of this diaspora returned to Africa via records, radio and Cuban advisers. African musicians absorbed these influences and integrated them into their music. At the same time African musicians were traveling to Europe where they encountered the Brazilian strain of the diaspora and, more importantly to their pocket books, found a European concert circuit that they could tour.  

In the previous post in this series, An interlude in the record bins (it has links to all of the earlier posts if you're interested), I discussed how European promoters of eclectic music from around the world who were eager to increase their sales were frustrated by the difficulty in getting their albums binned in record stores. They solved that problem by creating a new music genre which they called World Music.

Should you find a record store that's still open and look through the World Music bin you're quickly discover that the geography of it is very distorted. Irish and Brazilian music are the 800lb gorillas in it, with African, and Middle Eastern music taking up the bulk of the rest of the space, leaving only a little room for a few dusty Hawaiian albums and polka bands. Missing entirely will be the enormously influential sounds of Bollywood, J-Pop and any hint of China.

What's up with that?

The song I've embedded above is the blind duo Malian of of Amadou and Miriam. They were fairly obscure even in Mali, only selling a few thousand records, until a musician named Manu Chao collaborated with them. The first album they produced with him sold over 600,000 copies.

Manu Chao is actually a French singer of Spanish ancestry (his parents left Spain after his grandfather was executed by the Franco regime). He started out doing rockabilly, drifted into French punk music and reinvented himself by traveling through South and Central America absorbing their style and using his linguistic skills to sing in a pastiche of languages. Oh, and he's a hard core leftist -- his band Radio Bemba Sound System is named after the radio gear Castro and Guevara used during the Cuban revolution.

The name World Music is a misnomer. It was chosen more or less at random, and these days it would be more accurate to call it The Music of Fuzzy-Headed Liberal Lonely Planet Backpackers. OK, I'm exaggerating to make a cheap joke, but regardless it is pretty clearly slanted towards a transnational mind set. 

From time to time I've ranted and raved on Flares that one of our big mistakes is not selling how truly revolutionary the American concept of individual freedom is. It is what brings people to our shores.  Consider the difference to Amadou and Miriam between a couple of thousand records sold locally and 600,000 and counting sold globally. We bewail the long march through our institutions -- why do we concede that territory?   

It frustrates the hell out of me.

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