ALL PHOTOS (unless credited otherwise): Unsplash
Do Artists Take from Other Nations’ Musical Culture Enough?
IT was quite hard coming up with a title…
that assessed and underlined what I was trying to say. I have covered a lot of musical ground over the course of the day – so will not burden and keep people too much, now. Some of the best sounds of the year, so far, have incorporated different cultures and textures. I have been awed by music from Tune-Yards and The Go! Team – both their current efforts splice in music from other continents and countries. It is hard to pinpoint exact parts of the world: there are African, Asian and North American touches here and there. I have been thinking of the albums that travel the world, as it were, and blend traditional Western elements with something lesser-heard and new. Many people consider music to be on a downward curve and slightly devalued – not quite as rambunctious, inventive and striking as previous years. There is validity to that argument but I wonder one thing: are musicians pushing boundaries enough and making music that strays beyond the walls and smoking area of the mainstream? We all hear acts who splice genres and do something that is very un-commercial and bold. I am all for that but, largely, that experimentation revolves around traditional instruments and predictable confines. That is not to say the sounds that arrive are ordinary and soft: artists like Tune-Yards are among the most arresting and sensational around right now!
I will mention a couple of ‘classic’ albums soon but, in new music, there are a few artists that take from various continents and communities. Before I mention one of my favourite new musicians; it is worth addressing that dreaded term: ‘World Music’. I put it in upper-case because we often see the genre as an outsider and unique – maybe not in a good way. Many feel music that comes from outside Europe and North America is ‘World Music’ – or it is the various sounds and squawks from nations we do not usually go to regarding good and fascinating ideas. We feel anything unconventional and away-from-the-traditional is unusual and warrants exclusion. I grant there are types of music, that fall into that genre, that are quite hard to get behind. I love African beats and flavours; I am keen on the strings and eccentric elements of Asian music – little bits of Australian music and what happens in indigenous areas. It is tricky embracing all other nations because the quality does vary. What I wonder is whether artists feel everything from other parts of the world hold little value because it is not featured on the radio and in the charts – that would be a faulty assumption.
IN THIS PHOTO: Vanessa Forero
An artist I am very fond of – and have not heard from in a while – is Brighton-based Vanessa Forero. She has Colombian background/D.N.A. and has used instruments from South America in her music. One need only listen to her 2016-E.P., From the Uproar, and there are incredible touches that one does not normally get from other artists. You need only look at the E.P.’s cover to see the sort of colour and exotic she brings to the music! There are beguiling pipes and percussion; incredible strings and international, vivacious swirls. You can see my technical grasp/terminology is not exactly profound – Forero would be best-placed to answer that – but I saw pre-release videos from her home where she guided the viewer into her world. She had/has instruments everywhere and balances conventional instruments with those from South America. One hears From the Uproar and there is a mystical, spiritual elevation that I have not heard anywhere else! Forero is part of a minority who are willing to expand their minds and challenge the predictable. I am not saying all other artists lack that spirit and quality: it is difficult to integrate music from other nations and make it fit inside familiar moulds. I am finding, with a lot of the bigger, bolder albums coming from artists; they are putting unusual sounds and international flavours into the pot. Fifi Rong is another artist who manages to bring other nations into her music. She blends East with West: the delightful and engaging tones of Asia with harder, more-crowd-friendly tones of the West. The result is some of the most appealing and inspirational music I have heard in a long time. Artists like Forero and Rong not only add something unexpected and fresh into the music - they introduce the listener to other sides of music (and nations we might think of when it comes to music).
I have mentioned Vanessa Forero and her Colombian ties: others I know source from Japan and China; parts of Africa and Central/South America. Most of the accessible and quality music we hear does not stray too far from the U.K. and U.S. I wonder whether artists are doing enough to broaden the scene and inspire the new generation. We are at a time when artists are being scrutinised and judged with every move they make. I am impressed there is so much invention in music but, if we want to go beyond the expected and known – do we need to take from other parts of the world? One of the most effective ways of doing this is to travel to other nations: is this feasible and possible for any artists; let alone newer acts who struggle to afford gigs in parts of their own country?! I wanted to mention two albums that took from African rhythms and ecosystems: Paul Simon’s Graceland and Blur’s Think Tank. The former saw Paul Simon break barriers and pair with the Ladysmith Black Mambazo choir – at a time when there was apartheid and racial discrimination in South Africa. The role of Ladysmith on Graceland cannot be ignored. I have not addressed vocal possibilities when it comes to other continents. The stunning, harmonious blends make songs like Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes and Homeless define the album and make it sound like nothing you have ever heard!
IMAGE CREDIT: Getty Images
It is not only the African vocals that go into Graceland. Los Lobos appear on All Around the World or The Myth of Fingerprints. Aside from legal battles between Los Lobos and Paul Simon; it is the voices and strings of Los Lobos that take a song from the ordinary to the sublime. Elsewhere on Graceland; the African influences and elements make the album such a varied, interesting and intense experience – and give listeners a window into other parts of the world; music they would not ordinarily hear. Damon Albarn and Blur sojourned in Africa during the Think Tank period and would write and record in humble and simple conditions. Albarn, especially, has always been curious regards other parts of the globe. For Think Tank; you can hear Africa in titles - Moroccan Peoples Revolutionary Bowls Club – and the swoon-and-bliss of Caravan. Blur travelled to Marrakesh and Morocco and were inspired by the people there. Songs like Crazy Beat and Gene by Genre came together in Marrakesh. The vocals were sung outside – the band felt it was a breath of fresh air being out of the studio and in such splendid conditions. They would record vocals on rooftops and underneath trees; it would be a real eye-opener for the band. Not only did that experience compel Albarn to look deeper into Africa (and Asia, in later work) but it adds a real niche to Think Tank.
IMAGE CREDIT: Getty Images
The record blends Western loops and electronics with those exotic and beautiful sensations of Africa – deftly able to weave the best from the West and East without losing its solidity and purpose. The two albums I have mentioned are among the most popular and notable than feature elements of other continents. To be fair, if you did your research, there are a fair few that go beyond the confines of home and pick from other parts of the world. In my view; there are not enough modern artists taking a leap and going to other countries. You do not, actually, need to leave your home to get a sense of international music and areas parts of the globe. I think, for a band or solo artists, a recording jaunt abroad can not only revitalise and rejuvenate music – it can infuse and infect an album and bring new dynamics into the ranks! If I were a musician, I would set money aside for some time in Africa - getting involved with local communities and sounds coming from there. It does not even need to be confined to Africa and Asia. Being bold enough to go to lesser-represented part of the U.S., for instance, could introduce new sounds and people to the mind. Consider Australia and how vast the land is; the scope and wonder of South America and all the inherent choices there. The world really is open and available to eager musicians – is it being exploited as much as possible? I agree it is tough assimilating foreign sounds into a market that still relies on Western ideas and a mix of genres (rather than nations). I feel, with a little curiosity and ambition; artists who are willing to splice something international into the scene will reap the rewards and inspire other musicians…
TO do likewise.