“World Music:” The Last, Best Hope for Rock and Roll? (If Anyone Still Cares)

“Who Will Save Rock and Roll?” sang those protopunk New Yorkers the Dictators in 2000, and the question still resonates not only with aging boomers nostalgic for the power chords of yesteryear but with anyone who’s begun to suspect that contemporary pop music, to be blunt, sucks. Amidst all the hand wringing and denunciations of corporate bottom-line fixations, it may seem far-fetched to argue that the way to resuscitate what is commonly thought of as an American musical idiom would lie in promoting music derived from non-American roots… and yet that is precisely what I would propose.

If there is indeed an aesthetic crisis afflicting popular music, it is certainly linked to the ravages of Big Business. Astute observers will describe how modern corporate media monsters need to ensure colossal and regular cash flows of platinum-selling garbage and, unlike their ancestors of thirty or forty years ago, how they seem unable to take even small risks on new sounds. Moreover, the current political/economic climate, by justifying and reinforcing the megacorporate model, has pushed all of popular culture way over into the most cutthroat, philistine version of lowest common denominator commercialization since P. T. Barnum uttered his famous dictum on the frequency of new future P. Diddy fans joining the world.

But what exactly is making the music so crummy? It’s not a matter of red herrings like “artistic quality” or “authenticity,” there’s nothing new about the co-opting of rebellion, and every musical era has heard clichéd complaints that “modern singers can’t really sing” or that there is too much prefabrication of musical trends. A clue to the true nature of the malaise lurks in commonly heard statements like “There’s plenty of great stuff out there—you just have to know where to look,” or “The real exciting rap is happening underground.” Such banalities presuppose a mass marketplace that has absolutely no place for the merging of genres or the transcendence of category, and no opportunities for mass success for characters as eccentric and innovative—and, crucially, as willing to break down borders—as James Brown, Dylan, Captain Beefhart, Brian Wilson, Jimi Hendrix, Run-DMC, and so on.

There is, most definitely, a qualitative decline in popular music—but it is in an area that lies deep within the secret history of musical composing, arranging, and production. The secret part is this: All truly great popular music is mongrel World Beat music. All truly great, powerful, mesmerizing music that is also able to connect to mass audiences does so by recombining preexisting elements of genres that up until that point had no business being seen in public together. Great popular music is about the real Rock and Roll Moment: dancing (and, by extension, having intercourse) with the Enemy Tribe. That is the truly subversive element that girds the power of commercial genres such as rock and roll, punk, folk revival, and dozens of others. They are all the sounds of cultural miscegenation in progress—sold as such by businesses that were as desperate to create new markets as they were to service existing markets. And it is precisely that aspect of older commercial music—its tendency to recombine and fuse disparate cultural forms into new forms—that has been lost in the triumph of niche marketing and now, presorted, preselected, and labeled Internet download sites, with vast libraries of MP3s, all ruthlessly categorized out of sheer necessity.

The fact is, the power and beauty of the best of any given genre of music lies in the way it manipulates, delights, and confounds an audience’s expectations. The source of that manipulation is in the way contrasting elements are chosen and fused, subordinated to the taste of the artist, whose own taste is in effect a surrogate for the restless, jaded consumer, unable to specifically ask for what he or she cannot exactly name—yet.

“Astonish me!” cried the fifteen-year-old fans of 1960s Top 40 radio. Unlike today, when such commands are utterly ignored or actively repressed, the pop music business of forty years ago knew no better than to obey, unleashing a maelstrom of drug-fueled creative chaos that today seems astonishing in its world-devouring precocity. But that wild party was but the culmination of a long process. In the pop universe of the 1920s through the 1970s, musicians and fans alike had tastes shaped by a wide range of international cultural influences, ubiquitous and inescapable, which found direct expression in countless details of rhythm, instrumentation, melodic phrase, and riff.

I am not only talking about superficial fads like the 1920s Hawaiian slack-guitar conquest of rural American string music, or the sitars of post-Revolver psychedelia, important as those underemphasized phenomena were. I am also referring to hidden influences, like the way Italian bel canto and opera fed directly into the ears of the young Elvis and Jackie Wilson; the absorption of medieval mode–based chord progressions by folk revivalists and the subsequent unleashing of those same archaic chord progressions in pop songs by Dylan, Lennon/McCartney, et al.; and the vast and monumental influence of Afro-Cuban music and rhythmic motifs on several generations of American pop. Then there’s the “Havana Moon”/”Louie Louie” connection, the New Orleans Caribbean-derived second-line march band tradition in hundreds of R&B classics, the cha-cha in “Satisfaction,” the Brazilian Baiao in a whole host of Brill Building tunes like “Save the Last Dance for Me,” not to mention the German schlager in Abba’s “Dancing Queen,” the very deliberate Austrian classical colors in Kraftwerk, and on and on.

That sort of genre-hopping and deep fusion of exotic elements is simply not part of standard commercial music creation today. It flies in the face of all accepted music biz practice, both mainstream and underground—to create product that, by its nature, defies easy categorization and hence confounds the MP3 selection process. And of course there is way too much money at stake in the marketing of most prepackaged categories.

There is one exception—the one area in commercial music that has the greatest promise and gets the least respect: the much-maligned “back-of-the-racks” category called World Music. No term used in the straight music biz is as embarrassing and uncool as that one, first coined in 1987 by a small collection of mostly British indie-label honchos and journalists to describe records they were trying to promote: African pop stars Fela Kuti and King Sunny Ade, obscure varieties of reggae, the Bulgarian choir recordings issued as Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares, and other material of the sort spotlighted at the annual World of Music and Dance festival—basically, international music that was in certain ways “hip.”

The promoters of this catchall term—let’s call them Worldies—were a motley collection of ex-folkies and ex-punks who had survived the Year Zero of English punk by veering off into nonrock universes. Like their contemporaries who were busy discovering (or inventing) hip-hop, techno, rave culture, etc., the Worldies intuitively sensed that the post-MTV, postvinyl, postmodern pop culture world was creating a new landscape, but unlike other fringe musical tastemakers, the Worldies were opting for a kind of neotraditionalist approach that eventually led them to a commercial dead end.

It doesn’t have to be this way. A new appreciation for the notion of World Music as a new progressive cultural consensus could emerge, and that paradigm could serve as the school for future aspiring international commercial artists, just as the paradigms of “punk rock” and “hip-hop” have become, despite their own nihilistic propaganda, rich and nurturing spawning grounds for mass-market acts. Why not “invent” a World Music style, much as Richard Hell, Malcolm McLaren, and the others “invented” a genre that eventually became recognized as punk? If we have reached the point where genres themselves are entirely arbitrary, then why not shape a genre that has the greatest chance to save post-MP3 pop from its own irrelevance—by stressing the forced combining of genres as a style in itself, rather than the reductive Balkanization of endless microniche categorization.

There already are commercial entities pushing this line of goods, of course. Señor Coconut, Manu Chao, Gogol Bordello, and dozens of other acts are pointing in this direction, not to mention the all-important schlock side of World Beat—the annoying “chill-out room” and “world trance” compilations one might find at Web sites like Music Mosaic that invite us to “trance out to tribal rhythms merged with Turkish drum & bass, Moroccan ethno-pop, DJ mixes from Ghana, and Brazilian electro-rap. Journey with American Indian medicine men and Australian hill people from the rain forests of Oceania to the brash Indo-pop clubs of Europe.” This is clearly the contemporary equivalent of the corniest fifties exotica lounge pop imaginable. But wait, didn’t those very same exotica records become the ultimate in retro cool thirty years later? And didn’t they unwittingly inspire the psychedelic masterpieces of the 1960s?

Next stop: Real Rock and Roll. Not in English. Maybe not even in 4/4 time. But reassuringly Like Nothing—or Everything—You’ve Ever Heard Before.

 George Sempepos is a musician and producer who co-led the Greek psychedelic funk group Annabouboula. More recently he has been producing a group he discovered called the Byzan-Tones that features the mysterious Barba Yiorgi and others.

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George Sempepos

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