I got pretty steamed last weekend reading a splashy one-page Tribune feature by Joshua Klein called "The Fading Borders of 'World' Music." It's behind the paper's online pay wall now, but I don't recommend spending the money to read it unless you're itching to be appalled yourself--the piece couldn't have been more wrongheaded and provincial.
The story opens by citing the 1981 David Byrne-Brian Eno collaboration My Life in the Bush of Ghosts (reissued in 2006 by Nonesuch) as "an album cheekily designed to imitate the exoticism of so-called 'world' music." Where to begin? The term "world music" didn't come into currency until 1983, after a consortium of DJs and label folks met in England to come up with a way to market records that had no clear home in Western music stores--they found it frustrating that African records were routinely shoved in the reggae section, for example. Given that "world music" hadn't yet acquired its present popular meaning in 1981, much less its connotation of shallow exoticism, how could Byrne and Eno have set out specifically to tweak it?
Perhaps more ridiculous is the claim that Byrne and Eno were being cheeky. Those guys have keen senses of humor, for sure, but more than most musicians they harbor a deep, sincere interest in global traditions. Even if Bush of Ghosts had been a "world music" record--and it's not, at least not exclusively, since the varied samples layered atop its thick, funky rhythmic musculature include familiar American music side-by-side with African sounds--there's absolutely no reason to characterize Byrne and Eno's treatment of foreign material as snarky, irreverent, or mocking.
Klein goes on to provide short profiles of six acts that are supposedly "new faces of world music," and it's here that he really goes off the rails. Of course he includes New York's Vampire Weekend (pictured), who play a sold-out show at the Metro on Sunday and whose inexplicable popularity is clearly the engine for this asinine trend piece. I'm not necessarily down on the band--all I can blame them for is being mediocre and dubbing their indie pop "Upper West Side Soweto"--but the alleged African elements in their sound have allowed plenty of rock critics to demonstrate how little they know about music from that part of the world. Robert Christgau wrote a thorough analysis of the situation a couple of months ago, so I won't go into detail here--except to point out that Klein is only slightly less than 100 percent wrong when he claims Vampire Weekend use "Congolese dance rhythms." They do ineptly ape the bubbly, crystalline guitar sound of Congolese rumba on a few songs, and on a few others they bang on a conga. Otherwise there's nothing remotely African about their music.
I have no idea why Klein mentions Panda Bear of the Animal Collective, aka Noah Lennox, except maybe because he lives in Lisbon, which is after all in a foreign country. The same goes for the Ruby Suns, a New Zealand group fronted by a Californian expat, Ryan McPhun--if you sing one tune in Maori on a bland, boilerplate indie-pop record like Sea Lion (Sub Pop), does that make it "world music" now?
Klein also nominates New York's Yeasayer, and I admit, I actually kinda like their recent debut, All Our Cymbals (We Are Free)--but it reminds me more of Genesis than of any kind of world music. Rounding out the list are sampladelic acts El Guincho (from Spain) and Kutiman (from Israel), but only the former builds its music mostly from international sounds. By the end it's clear that Klein is giving "world music" a definition even more debased than the one it already has--he's talking about Western pop that has some exotic spicing, nothing more. He doesn't seem to give a fuck about music that actually has its roots in Africa, Asia, or South America.
To be clear, it's not the bands I'm taking issue with. Music from other countries has always bled into rock--hell, early gems by New Orleans proto-rockers like Dave Bartholomew and Professor Longhair were practically built on the Cuban rhythmic unit known as the clave. I just find it depressing that so many music writers still aren't willing to do some exploring on their own to discover interesting and progressive artists from other lands, even with the Internet making it easier than ever--instead they fall in line to hype second-rate American acts who feebly pillage third-hand notions of world music. Imagine the alternate universe where an article about "new faces" in world music would point you at X Plastaz, Os Ritmistas, or Mahala Rai Banda.
Anthony Ortega, Afternoon in Paris (Hatology)
Christine Sehnaoui, Solo (Olof Bright)
Hecker, Electronic Music Soundtrack for "The Disenchanted Forest x 1001" by Angela Bulloch (Editions Mego)
Vierergruppe Gschlößl, I Take Everything (Jazzwerkstatt)
Skyphone, Fabula (Rune Grammofon)