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Sharp Darts: It's All World Music Now

How technology is turning the tables on the Westernization of pop

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Things didn't go too swimmingly when the United States started trying in earnest, toward the turn of the 20th century, to join the old-world superpowers in the colonialism game. Traditional colonialism had already begun its long, slow decline even as we were trying to lay claim to the Philippines. But in the era of soft colonialism that's followed, we've excelled—as American pop culture has gone international, foreign countries have been Westernized through movies, music, and consumer products instead of at the end of a gun.

Nothing epitomizes that process like rock 'n' roll, a near universal symbol of liberation for young people living under oppressive regimes and a proxy for the semimythical American ideals of freedom and opportunity. On the other side of the Iron Curtain, bootleggers cut copies of Bill Haley or Little Richard records into used X-ray stock, and not long afterward the Beatles' music swept through Russia on pirated cassettes. Contraband Western music had a significant influence not only on the Prague Spring activism of 1968 but also on the Velvet Revolution more than 20 years later.

Rock still has that kind of power in some parts of the world: Vice Films' recent documentary Heavy Metal in Baghdad follows the travails of Acrassicauda, allegedly the only metal band in Iraq. They speak to the way acts like Metallica and Slipknot offer a release from the pressures of living in a war zone; they practice between bombings, endure death threats from anti-Western Islamic militants, and occasionally play a show that brings together what's probably the entirety of the tiny Baghdad metal scene. Somehow they've even managed to keep the band going in exile, first in Syria and now in Istanbul. Their story is a testament to pop music's transformative power and a welcome antidote to the pervasive, cynical notion that people only play music in the first place because they're trying to get rich, famous, or laid.

Artists all over the planet have been adapting and transforming Western pop idioms for decades, of course—in the 60s and 70s, for instance, there was great psychedelia in Turkey, killer funk-rock and disco in Africa, tropicalia and the Jovem Guarda in Brazil, and the batty surf-psych called Khmer rock in Cambodia. Until fairly recently, though, these movements tended to flourish and fade without spreading too far beyond the communities that nurtured them. It could take years or even decades for Westernized pop to make it back to the West, and when it did it was usually in the form of reissues—in many cases the folks releasing the music had never even met the people who'd recorded it. There wasn't much of a feedback loop, in other words, connecting the influencers and the influenced.

High-speed Internet and satellite TV have changed all that, making the exchange of musical ideas easier and swifter than ever before. We're still far from a global music culture, though. For one thing, plenty of foreign styles have been evolving independently for long enough that even their heavy reliance on Western pop doesn't make them sound familiar: mind-bogglingly sugary stuff like Serbian turbo-folk, Cantonese pop, or Bulgarian chalga, for instance, is too slick for "world music" enthusiasts but too foreign to cut it in the mainstream over here. For a while it seemed like bhangra might be the exception to the rule, especially after Jay-Z spat a verse over Panjabi MC's "Mundian To Bach Ke," but in retrospect that looks more like a fluke.

I'm hardly sure a musical monoculture would be much fun anyway—it's crazy interesting now to compare foreign versions of Western styles and try to parse out the different influences. While Acrassicauda's metal is pretty straightforward headbanging stuff, the Moroccan band Hoba Hoba Spirit begins "El Caid Motorhead" with the instantly recognizable riff from "Ace of Spades" but then drops in a rhythmically ornate vocal melody and a typically African call-and-response passage.

That you can go listen to either of these bands as soon as you're done reading this column is a function of the Internet—as is the fact that groups in the Middle East and North Africa can keep up with American and European metal. In his new book, Heavy Metal Islam, where I first read about Hoba Hoba Spirit, Middle Eastern history expert and working musician Mark LeVine discusses the diffusion of metal, punk, and hip-hop into the Islamic world, pointing out that their spread has paralleled the spread of Internet access. Similar factors have allowed Africa to connect in real time with Western pop music, especially hip-hop. Hip-hop has been in Africa for almost 30 years, but today there are sites like africanhiphop.com and swahiliremix.com, where African MCs are already posting their own freestyles over Lil Wayne's "A Milli."

African hip-hoppers aren't just recycling Western material, either. A nascent pan-African style—which combines local rhythms and melodies with elements of American rap, UK grime, and Jamaican dancehall—is finally starting to compete with imported American-made hip-hop. If you think the U.S. has a lock on the art of the summer banger, listen to Ali Kiba's "Cinderella," a heady froth of dancehall drums and orchestral stabs topped with Kiba's acrobatic vocals, whose swoops, flourishes, and runs seem to have seriously panicked the studio's Auto-Tune program. That track—not something by Lil Wayne or Mariah Carey—is the biggest thing in Tanzania right now.

South African DJ/production duo Sweat.X make music that sounds like the global information collision happening 24-7 on the Internet—bits of recognizable stuff like electro, Miami bass, and house flash by, embedded in music whose rhythms, arrangements, and structures all color outside the lines of familiar Western club styles. The "EbonyIvorytron Mega Mix" is a disorienting combination of laid-back southern hip-hop boom and the kind of ADD glitchiness you usually hear way out on the experimental end of the dance spectrum, not from people trying to make floor fillers. Sweat.X have started to attract the attention of club-music bloggers in Europe and the States, but I have a feeling that most people learned about them the way I did—by stumbling onto their MySpace through the pages of their stateside friends, like Pase Rock and Daedelus.

"World music" has never been much more than a marketing term, and it's always implied a one-way transaction—after all, your favorite rock bands don't turn into "world music" just because someone in Dakar is listening to them. And now that so much of the planet is hooked up to the same grid as America, it's a totally bankrupt concept. It's ridiculous to call African hip-hop world music but not Western hip-hop, especially when artists like Missy Elliott, M.I.A., and even Fergie are borrowing sounds from abroad as liberally as the Africans do. The exchange of musical ideas between the West and the rest of the world is evolving into a genuine conversation, and that can only be an improvement. The Internet may be giving the music industry all kinds of fits, but it's pretty great for the health of music itself.v

Care to comment? Find this column at chicagoreader.com. And for more on music, visit our blogs Crickets and Post No Bills.

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