"World music" is a horrible idea. It makes you think of corny CDs with "native" drawings that are sold at the Nature Company; stuff to twirl around to at hippie festivals, songs that aging beardos play at dinner parties to seem well-traveled. The term itself is offensive, creating an artificial distance that places Western music on a pedestal, and music from "the rest of the world" into a bin labeled "exotic" or "outdated" or "unintelligible."
But there's a new musical Esperanto emerging, as technology makes it possible for musicians to collaborate across time zones and machines are manipulated to form a lexicon of rhythm and sound that's at once globally understood and individual. Where the difference in structure and sonics between, say, a European orchestra and a "traditional" band from Angola might have once been too wide for the average ear to traverse, modern Angolan electronic music–kuduro–has elements in common with punk, deep tribal house, and even Daft Punk.
Musical cross-pollination has been happening as long as people have been moving around the globe. "Orchestra Baobab from Senegal takes its inspiration from Cuban salsa, and Colombian champeta contains elements of Congolese soukous and Jamaican ragga," points out musician Maga Bo, who contributes soundsystem photos from all over the world to this piece. Nevertheless, technology is accelerating the rate and depth of this process, making it possible for a California native and a Tanzanian taxi driver to bond over 50 Cent, and a Philly bike messenger to geek out to Brazilian baile funk.
Referring to "the new" world music is our joking reference to seeing "world music" differently, but also a way to suggest that we're listening to and making the music of a "new world," where borders are routinely crossed and a dancefloor is a dancefloor, no matter where it is. We'd love to bring you a full-on special about Japanese dancehall or Johannesburg kwaito, but in the meantime, we asked some our favorite world travelers for some missives from the field.
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Diplo creates a worldwide crew by erasing boundaries between baile funk and Baltimore club, dancehall and kuduro.
"I was always restless," says 31-year-old Wes Pentz, better known to y'all as Diplo: globetrotting DJ, Mad Decent label owner, and champion of bass music big and small. As a youth, Pentz moved all around the Dirty South–hitting Mississippi, Tennessee, Georgia, and Alabama before landing in Florida, becoming enamored with Miami bass, and learning how to DJ in hotel lounges in Spring Break, USA (a.k.a. Daytona Beach, Florida). He hitchhiked to New Mexico, lived in Japan, and did earthquake-relief volunteer work in India before landing in Philly, where he daylighted as a schoolteacher and moonlighted as half of boundary-pushing hip-hop DJ duo Hollertronix.
Eventually, music got the best of him. He quit the day job to travel to Rio de Janeiro, linking up with baile funk's heavy-hitters under the auspices for writing an article for The Fader. On the plane ride home, he edited together the tracks he had been given into 2004's renegade mix CD Favela on Blast, and its subsequent popularity sealed his fate as one of few tastemakers able to break non-Western music to first-world hipsters.
Pentz's straightforward manner and straight-up hype has earned him some backlash on the blogs, but you can't say he's fallen off. He recently launched Mad Decent, a label championing the likes of Brazilian art-rockers Bonde Do Role and next-gen Baltimore club producer Blaqstarr, with upcoming releases from South Rakkas Crew and a soon-to-be-disclosed African rock band. Favela on Blast, a Wild Style-esque video documentary of the same name as his mix CD, will begin touring film festivals in the fall. Pentz is also planning to open a music production outpost in Rio that will support itself by selling tracks made at the school via iTunes, and he recently produced tracks with young, 2Pac-obsessed rappers at a remote aboriginal school in the Australian outback. We caught up with Diplo at home in the Eastern U.S. time zone, and asked him what's going down everywhere. Mike Dunleavy
XLR8R: Was it initially difficult for you to play tracks you've discovered, like baile funk stuff, to U.S. audiences?
Diplo:Naw. There's a whole scene of weird DJs all over the world that are like me. And the taste in music these days is so much more eclectic than it was five years ago. Kids come to parties and they're more intelligent about music. They don't just have MTV or trading with a friend–the internet has created a place where they have more access to things. When we were doing the Hollertronix party, we couldn't play much of anything that wasn't hip-hop–we had to play [Jay-Z's] "Money Ain't a Thing" at peak time. Now every club in New York is playing Baltimore club into The Gossip into Dirty South hip-hop. That wasn't even a concept before.
Things are able to move now, [thanks to] the internet. Nothing's foreign anymore. Reggae artists will sample The Surfaris' "Wipeout" and make a huge hit. Some country dude will have a song with Nelly and it will be played on Top 40 radio!
[As far as DJing different stuff], it's all about context. You just can't go to the club and be like, "Look how crazy I am. I'm going to play the craziest shit." You have to finesse it. With hip-hop we're so lucky–[records come with] the acapella and the instrumental, and nobody really takes advantage of that, besides doing crappy mash-ups. That stuff is a really simple and useful key to edge your way into some different things. A good DJ is one who breaks new music. It's not about making the crowd happy and getting paid to play Avril Lavigne every night.
What music is exciting to you right now?
South Africa's house scene. When I went down there to visit, middle-class black kids were going to techno clubs, and the poor kids all listen to kwaito, which is their form of slowed-down garage music. In Angola, there's the kuduro scene, which is really progressive and weird and experimental. They have less than the favelas in Brazil and they're making more progressive music. In Angola, the music doesn't really have choruses; they just rap and rap for hours, kind of like a grime rave [in London]. They'll make songs sampling MSN Messenger sounds because they come on the computer for free. It's not even like, "Let's pick up an old record and sample it" anymore. It's like, "Fuck it! The computer already comes with some shit." And I don't mean sounds that come with Garage Band–just sounds that are on the desktop.
House beats and dance music just hits in Africa–and gets more stuck in the 'hood. It becomes this crazy, sampler-driven kids' music that doesn't really appeal to anybody but me and other people that are music freaks.
I think people have the perception that a lot of people in the ghetto only listen to hip-hop. When in reality you've got stuff like Chicago ghetto house...
In the U.S., we've got Baltimore club, Chicago house, the Detroit house and techno scenes, and even the New York house scene... This music always comes from gay black scenes. It comes from these kids doing whatever they want and going against society. Baltimore club is a gay music, at its start.
With baile funk there's a gay element to it as well; like, they have transvestites that are always their sidekicks. All the music really comes from the fringe element, kind of like a punk thing. It's against society, it's against what you would think is supposed to be "suitable" for the people there.
What's the craziest situation you've put yourself in to get new music?
In Jamaica, you have to travel around to people to get your dubs done or get tracks made, and that's pretty hardcore. The Japanese kids are the craziest. They'll go anywhere. They'll go to a prison and do dubs. They don't have any concept of danger, I guess, and they're such dancehall freaks.
Going to favelas is fucked up but I never had a problem. People are just really excited that I'm into their music and want to collaborate with them. Going to some barrios in Argentina was really eye-opening, seeing the music that's happening there from the Paraguayan and Bolivian immigrants that live in the shantytowns outside of Buenos Aires. At least in favelas, it's always a party, it's colorful, it's exciting, and there's community, but the [shantytowns] in Argentina are really depressing. They're making really cool new-school cumbia. Cumbia has been around forever and it's really popular in Mexico and Latin America; it's the real ghetto shit with a slow beat–not like reggaeton.
The more I talk about the crazy things I've seen it puts what I do into a weird light–it kind of defeats the point. I mean, guns are everywhere and you see violence routinely, but I try not to talk about that. It makes it seem like I'm doing some Indiana Jones-type shit and it's not like that.
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Bombay the Hard Way
Dublab music wrangler Frosty finds the holy grail in an Indian bazaar.
I looked online for a long time trying to find any information on record shopping in India–there was almost nothing. Finally, a Belgian friend of mine told me about this place he'd been turned onto through another friend. It's not the only record store in India, but one of very few. It's in the Null Bazaar (also called Thieves Bazaar, because they say that anything stolen in Bombay ends up there). Getting there was a super-multi-directional expedition–every 10 feet you had to ask for directions.
The guy who owns it is named Haji Ebrahim; he's probably about 55. His main business is repairing old-school radios and phonographs, but he's a record freak. I was looking for Bollywood records from 1967 through 1982, everything from rock and psych and jazzy cabaret sounds to disco stuff. When all of these composers got drum machines and synthesizers in the '70s and '80s, instead of replacing all the other sound sources they would use them in addition to full orchestras.
I had a list of records I was looking for–things that in a perfect world I would find. Within 10 minutes, Haji had had my list of 20 records fulfilled and on the counter. He knew everything back-to-back–he could look at an album and tell me I would like song number three on a particular side–and he knew exactly what I was looking for: crazy drum breaks and weird synths.
From what I've gathered, India is not really a collector's culture. It's not like Japan, where you find everything in pristine condition. People really use things–they see music the way it should be, as something to be used and enjoyed. It's much more of a cassette culture now. Every time we would go through the security in the airport, they would be suspicious of our records at first, then they would look at each other and start laughing. They were amazed that we would have records or want them. frosty
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Adventures in sound from a producer who uses the world as his studio.
I am attracted to autonomous manifestations of individuality, resourcefulness, creativity, and humanity. For over 20 years, I've been traveling in search of rhythm- and bass-heavy sounds that bump out of distorted loud speakers in mini-vans, taxis, buses, shacks, shops, and PA systems on streets around the world. I've found that the most exuberant and interesting music is made by people who are so inspired and intent on sharing their creative vision that impediments encountered in the production process end up shaping the sound more than the most expensive or advanced plug-in could ever feign to do. In the absence of corporate, government, or record-label funding, this is hardcore DIY by people who have never heard of punk rock or street teams, and whose system of sonic reproduction and distribution is a response to fucked-up economies, police corruption, lack of basic amenities, and the necessity to express oneself and pay the bills at the same time. Viva a cultura da rua! Maga Bo
1. In Dakar, Senegal, this guy stood on the corner all day long shouting out prices for the fabric that he was selling–every once in a while rocking some tunes and then shouting over that. This is his full setup.
2. A closer detail of the makeshift street-corner soundsystem, composed of a microphone spliced into a portable radio powered by a car battery running two external loudspeakers on a stand.
3. Akhenaton studios in Zanzibar, Tanzania, where I gave some lessons in beat production and recording.
4. Georgetown mobile soundsystem, Guyana. One of the beautiful things about these soundsystems is that they are totally customizable, and the older and more used they are, the more they reflect their owner's taste.
5. A pirate-CD stand in Morocco. I love how, in the absence of slick corporate pre-fab logos, people hire a local painter to beautify their space and attract customers. That's the king of Morocco in the middle photo. This shop also sells soap, biscuits, and hair products.
6. Car rapide, the local transport in Dakar.
7. Leila Hamadi recording vocals at the Dhow Countries Music Academy in Stone Town, Zanzibar.
8. In addition to providing a display case for CDs, the top doubled as a workspace for hand-labeling and packaging CDs.
9. My favorite soundsystem of all time, at the Djemma al Fna in Marrakech, Morocco. I was interested in buying the 45s, but, when I picked one up, this guy grabbed it out of my hand, slammed it (literally) on the record player, asked me if I wanted tea or coffee, and then began playing along to the record.
10. Having had difficulty with both security and finding a place to install his studio, Makonelah found a solution in a shipping container ($1,000 USD). Easily transported, air-conditioned, and lockable, his studio-in-a-box now resides in a backyard of an office building in Mombasa, a suburb of Stone Town, Zanzibar.
11. Car stereo/battery-based soundsystem/shop in Georgetown.
12. My basic studio/communications setup: laptop, MIDI controller for DJing, iPod for storage and listening to all the random CDs along the way, audio interface, headphones, cell phone (100% essential) for calling and sending text messages to MCs and musicians (get a different chip in every country), high-quality microphone, and the basics, which are more or less common to hotel rooms around the world (a desk and a chair). The hard part is finding a hotel that is quiet. This is low-budget, independent, punk rock, DIY guerrilla recording.
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A dispatch from A compulsive traveler who tracks urban sounds in Tanzania.
In Africa, everyone has their radio on from 6 a.m. until they go to sleep. Recording artists come from all over Africa–especially Kenya and Uganda–to record in Dar es Salaam, the capital of Tanzania, so that's who you hear on the radio there. And they play a lot of bongo flava, a mixing of hip-hop and traditional Tanzanian music (which is just called "dance music"). It's got rapping in Swahili and a tropical, percussive style, plus lots of electronic hip-hop beats. I could play it anywhere and people would think it was sick. They wouldn't think of it as "world music."
One out of every five songs on Tanzanian radio is an American hip-hop song; I even went to an internet café called Too Short. Cab drivers who don't speak any English are bumping Ying Yang Twins and Lil Jon. It's weird to say, but it made me really proud to be an American.
But what I think is really cool is Congotronics, whose members are making microphones out of old car parts. But I bet they don't think it's cool; they're just doing it out of necessity. As it gets easier for people to record music electronically, and as things become more liberal economically, people are recording more things locally. In the future, it won't just be about the "traditional" sound of this one country–it will be about the sound of a certain city or group of people in a city.
Everywhere I've been, the music I heard that I liked was new urban music. People say stuff like, "we're not preserving the artistic integrity of these cultures." But if you ask someone who makes R&B in Thailand, they probably don't feel that way.
Americans are always looking for these "authentic" cultural artifacts. There's such a focus on the "underground" guide to this place, or discovering the "real" music of Syria. But that's a stagnant attitude–it's all authentic. You go to other places and people are obsessed with what's coming out now, what's new. They don't say, "We want to preserve our culture"; they say, "We want a car, a CD player, a better quality of life." Young people in urban places are making music that represents their culture now and reflects the electronic evolution.
In America, I'm interested in music that's happening now, and fringe culture, and that's exactly what I look for when I travel to other countries. I can't wait to hear the electronic music some kid in South Korea is making on his videogame console.
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What in the world?
Five acts fusing disparate styles together into something new.
(Gypsy music + punk)
Formed in NYC's Lower East Side in 1999 by theatrical frontman Eugene Hutz, Gogol Bordello presents a calliope of accordion, fiddle, and other Eastern European instrumentation with a drunken, cabaret-like live show and plenty of punk attitude.
(Deep house + hip-hop + African dialect and percussion)
This TV presenter/actor/rapper is one of the big guns of the South African kwaito scene, which melds raps in Xhosa and Zulu and hip-hop bluster with slowed-down deep house beats. Other notable names include Mzekezeke and Brown Dash.
Balkan Beat Box
(Klezmer + Israeli folk + dancehall + techno)
A revolving cast of musicians and vocalists–from Turkey'srael, Morocco, and points beyond–mix Middle Eastern sounds with hip-hop and dancehall influences, throwing in the occasional Bulgarian vocal or Hebrew rap to create a Mediterranean stew of sorts.
Rude Bwoy Face
(Reggae/dancehall + Japanese lyrics)
This Japanese MC moves effortlessly between a high-speed ragga flow and a slower reggae/R&B sing-song, with his hard, rolling Japanese syllables fitting remarkably well over dancehall riddims (some of them from two-girl Japanese reggae soundsystem Hemo & Moofire).
Bonde Do Role
(Indie pop + baile funk)
Hailing from Curitiba, Brazil and now signed to Domino, this three-piece makes infectious, bobbling indie pop and rock with backbeats cribbed from Rio's Miami bass-influenced baile funk scene.