World Music 2.0
Between Fun and Protest Culture
Utopian? An introduction
The old model of centre and periphery is more abstruse than ever. We live in a world of multiple, interwoven modernities. Social and cultural sciences proclaim the end of the eurocentric master narrative and declare the one-sided modernisation theories of the 1950s and 1960s invalid. The same thing is suggested by new tracks, songs, sound montages and noise storms from Asia, Africa and Latin America: modernity and the zeitgeist now arise poly-centrically in the exchange between the Global North and the Global South.
The accelerated processes of globalisation and digitalisation have revolutionised the making of music on many levels. All across the world musicians today find new ways of producing their music cheaply and promoting themselves globally. M.I.A., the Tamil artist from London, could be said to have spearheaded this development. Her soundtrack ‘Paper Planes’ on the international hit film Slumdog Millionaire embodies much of what this music stands for. In her multi-modern world, she is constantly doing away with old antitheses: counterculture versus majority culture, activism versus fun – and the First World versus the Third World. In the video ‘Born Free’ for her 2010 CD Maya, M.I.A. plays an activist who commits acts of extreme violence. Her persona has red-haired men executed – representatives of prisoners in Sri Lanka’s civil war, according to the artist. The acoustic horror trip mixes sirens, explosions, screams of panic and deafening noise with M.I.A.’s voice as an evil dictator. World music 2.0 can no longer be squeezed into a straightjacket: it is contradictory and ambiguous. We hear in it the chaos of the world, the hectic of everyday life, anger about world politics and the economy, and the hope of making a living through music.
Utopian metaphors and actual musical styles
World music 2.0 is the product of communication without spatiotemporal boundaries and beyond territorial borders. It questions traditional ideas about culture, identity and community and can also be read as a musique concrète committed to realism – or as an acoustic (and visual) seismograph of the time: it is the music of worldwide urbanisation. The slums nowadays are growing faster than the inner cities – and in just the same way the new variation of world music is growing faster than world music 1.0, which was always tailored to middle-class Western ears. World music 2.0 recycles everything and, at its best, appeals to the listener with its directness, urgency and creativity. World music 2.0 is thus just as varied as the virtual zeitgeist that is conveyed nowadays through the media of blogs, online communities, music and video platforms. And it is as fleeting, unpredictable and flexible as life itself in the age of digital capitalism, which is orientated more and more towards short-term and elastic economic management.
Despite the many differences, there are striking similarities to be observed among these musicians and music styles scattered across the globe. Two hypotheses: 1. The musicians are working with the experimental approaches of the avant-garde, pop avant-garde and Jamaican bass culture. With these they are creating (finally and clearly) a world-encompassing multi-local avant-garde of the twenty-first century. 2. On the one hand they are constructing self-assured beyond-colonial positions, but on the other they also repeatedly demonstrate that they are trapped within old post-colonial structures. This is particularly apparent in their dialectical approach to exotica, violence and war.
A multi-local pop avant-garde
In contemporary European music discourse, the term ‘avant-garde’ is frequently equated with New Music – i.e. the serial techniques of composers such as Stockhausen and Boulez, but also with aleatoric schools around John Cage in the United States. But an older and broader definition of the term ‘avant-garde’ also applies to the musicians of world music 2.0. According to this, avant-garde artists seek to break with whatever is the dominant musical canon; they want to reposition music (and art) within society; and they are constantly, cyclically, re-defining the role of music – sometimes as the image of real life, sometimes as a form of protest; then either as shock therapy or irony; and finally, it serves as an escape into imaginary worlds. Avant-gardisms do not therefore originate in different places simultaneously; they are always relative, linked to a particular place and a particular present. Thus, for example, it is not possible to trace a linear sequence from Futurism to musique concrète and free improvisation. World music 2.0 today is, from the Euro-American point of view, first and foremost a multi-local avant-garde: it is remixing our music scenes and is also introducing new non-musical positions.
Avant-garde does not exclude the pop avant-garde. Strictly speaking, these are pop musician artists, such as John Lennon, Pete Townshend or Brian Ferry, graduates of art schools rather than academies of music. In the broader sense, it also includes ‘non-academic’ pop musicians: rock’n’roll, psychedelic rock, punk, or Krautrock, especially in their early experimental phases. However, ‘Black sound’ was – and still is – for the most part disregarded, according to the thesis of Dieter Lesage and Ina Wudtke in their essay ‘Black Sound – White Cube’. ‘Black sound’, whether played by black or white musicians, focusses more strongly on rhythms than on harmony. It involves styles like blues, reggae, calypso, hip-hop, house, dubstep and grime, and still struggles to find a place in the art world as well as at concerts and club nights – or to be acknowledged as pop avant-garde. Here too world music 2.0 could be the instigator of change. In his art-pop-video the South African rapper JR aggressively demands ‘Make The Circle Bigger’; and in 2010 a whole exhibition was devoted to the lesbian, trans and homosexual ‘bounce’ rappers from New Orleans.
Many world music 2.0 musicians work with formal musical principles familiar to us from this Euro-American avant-garde and pop avant-garde. They seize on every imaginable sound available and rework them, sometimes on digital sampler software (the post-modern instrument), or on old reel-to-reel tape machines; or they might imitate them using acoustic instruments. They are establishing an art of the everyday, which contains the sounds of their local environment and of the technologised, post-industrial media world. The Beirut trumpeter Mazen Kerbaj imitates the sounds of war on his trumpet. For a long time he did so unconsciously, until after one of his concerts the Austrian trumpeter Frantz Hautzinger commented, ‘Your sounds sound like helicopters and bombs.’ Kerbaj is aware of the Italian futurist Luigi Russolo and his 1913 manifesto The Art of Noises – but he is more strongly influenced by the pioneers of free jazz and free improvisation, such as Peter Brötzmann and his album Machine Gun – automatic gun for fast, continuous firing. Like Russolo and the Futurist writers of the circle around Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, Kerbaj and many of his colleagues also demonstrate a certain fascination with war. However, in their case this is fed by nostalgic memories of the first fifteen years of their lives, growing up amid the civil war, and not necessarily because they, like the Futurists, regard war as a fascinating aesthetic and mythical phenomenon.
In the Lebanese city of Tripoli Osman Arabi is following in the footsteps of Bruitism (‘noise music’) and experimenting with radical noise – and psychedelic sounds. Raed Yassin – unlike Kerbaj – works with acoustic material from the Lebanese civil war. He mixes recordings made in the field and media files with sounds of a double bass and voices, turning them into sound collages known in European avant-garde jargon as montage or ‘bricolage’. Yassin reworks sound events with political connotations (propaganda songs, political speeches, pop music etc.). Only by non-Lebanese listeners can this montage be heard as a purely acoustic, acousmatic musique concrète. To a Lebanese audience it is a form of protest - whether or not the artist intends it as such.
On the CDs of the Egyptian label 100copies, sound artists experiment with the sounds of Cairo and electro-acoustic music (Mahmoud Refat, Hassan Khan, Ramsi Lehner, Adham Hafez); and in Palestine rappers mix political texts with field recordings from checkpoints (such as the collective Checkpoint 303). The examples of music from Cairo seem to be closer to an acousmatic musique concrète, whereas the Palestinian artists are clearly taking a more direct, activist approach – and are thus perhaps closer to the field of soundscape composition. Essentially most of these musicians are celebrating what academics describe as a postmodern aesthetic. They hop back and forth between materials from genres as diverse as rap and musique concrète. In doing so, some musicians have clearly adopted the random (aleatoric) principle: Charbel Haber of the post-punk group produces his recordings in endless processes that switch between computer music and taped music. The band sends live recordings of jam sessions, manipulated guitar sounds and Reaktor software effects back and forth up to five times between the computer and a reel-to-reel tape machine, in order finally to achieve ‘those really deep and dirty sound textures which we love so much’.
Pianist Cynthia Zaven’s project The Untuned Piano Concerto is based on a performance she gave in New Delhi, for which she had an old, out-of-tune piano mounted on a lorry, and played it while being driven through the town. The result is an acoustic interaction between improvised piano passages, the honking of cars, and other street sounds. In this project, too, randomness plays a part. The project came about in the context of a piece of art - that too is not unusual for the Beirut scene. Many of these artists work in an inter-disciplinary fashion, across different artistic fields (the key word here is flux). Tashweesh mix rap and electronic music with acoustic and visual archive recordings from Palestine to create short audio-visual films. Hassan Khan from Egypt has presented his multi-media works, which combine sound, image and text, at numerous exhibitions and festivals in the Middle East, Europe and the United States. Finally, Tarek Atoui works between live electronic music and computer music. On his laptop he creates acoustic landscapes full of fractures and contrasts: a mix of glitch sounds, samples of political speeches, Chinese and Arabic voices, sounds of war, pop, and much more. Yet his music is not a purely intellectual exercise; it shuttles nimbly back and forth between the old worlds of serious composition and pop music. In his performances Atoui controls his laptop as a rock star does his guitar. Werner Jauk, in his essay ‘pop / music + medien / kunst: Der musikalisierte Alltag der digital culture’ [‘pop / music +media / art – The Musicalised Everyday of Digital Culture’], sees this ‘hedonistic copy and paste’ as typical of the pop avant-garde.
These examples of musicians from the Middle East are complemented by many more from Indonesia, India, Mexico, and other countries of the Global South. In African and Latin American cities in particular, musicians have no hesitation in shuttling between the majority culture and the counterculture. They do this far more than musicians from the Arab world, where to this day it remains difficult for an ‘alternative’ pop scene to flourish alongside extremely commercial pan-Arab pop music.
These musicians seem to be influenced in part by the urgency and aggression of the various US and British club styles, from Detroit ghetto tech and Baltimore club to dubstep and grime – but directly or indirectly they also influence these styles. Kwaito, from the South African townships, which – with its decelerated house beats, hints of local styles (mbaqanga, kwela, ‘bubblegum’) and aggressive-sounding sprechgesang (in Zulu, Sotho, and the township slang Tsotsitaal) – expressed so well the esprit of young black South Africans after the end of apartheid in the 1990s, has today degenerated into a polished, commercial musical form after being monopolised by the South African music and advertising industries. The trend was relieved by South African rap and house, or by ‘shangaan electro’ from the South African townships. Shangaan samples complex marimba and organ melodies and short, repetitive song passages, arranging them over subdued but breakneck rhythms to create a constantly changing acoustic organism. The music sounds distinct and new. Jagwa music from Dar es Salaam also sounds experimental while retaining a very local feel: confused, off-key melodies on a cheap Casio keyboard laid over multiple rhythms.
Artists or musicians?
Many world music 2.0 musicians constantly hear the same accusations: that they are artists, not musicians; that they are elitist cosmopolitans, whose only perspective on their context of origin is a privileged one; and that all they are doing is copying musical styles and forms from the Global North. Dismissing all of their music as mere facsimile would not be fair either to the music or to the musicians. On a panel with the title ‘Local Experiments: Decentering the Global Avant-Garde’ at the annual Conference of the Society of Ethnomusicology in Middletown in 2008, Christopher Miller stressed that musicians in Indonesia might not know John Cage, but were still working with similar formal principles of creation. On the same panel, Andrew McGraw criticised the propensity to jump to the conclusion that all experimental aesthetics are attempting to emulate our Euro-American canon. Musicians in Beirut may be very well informed about the Euro-American avant-garde and pop avant-garde, but their musical expression is also characterised by their immediate acoustic environment: the acoustic socialisation of wartime, the local psychedelic rock music scene of the 1960s, and much more. At the same time, standardised Arabic classical music and ‘national’ Lebanese music (an adaptation of local folk music for concert hall performance) often serve as negative examples for these musicians, from which, for various reasons, they choose to disassociate themselves. So these musicians do not simply copy; they make music from their own personal perspectives and positions.
In addition to the transnational zeitgeist in their specific musical niches, they are also influenced by the post-modern aesthetics of other artistic disciplines and by present-day non-musical phenomena. Furthermore: defining this transnational zeitgeist in music and art simply as ‘Western’ is not legitimate. The avant-garde and pop avant-garde above all have always been influenced – decisively so – by diaspora artists from Africa, Asia and Latin America.
Self-confident after-colonial positions
In his exciting dissertation, Johannes Ismaiel-Wendt defines popular music per se as post-colonial music. He observes in pop music a continuation of representational discourses about ‘race’ and ‘culture’ and evaluates this as a form of racism and post-colonialism. ‘References to places, regions, countries and/or nations and continents constitute a central system for the categorisation of popular music,’ he writes. Many world music 2.0 musicians would agree with him. Others, however, would not. These musicians actively reveal the ‘exotic’ foreign representations of their homelands and stage them in their performances, as ‘colourful’ ironic play.
The majority of world music 2.0 musicians fall into the first category. They are turning their backs on the enduring Eurocentric focus on the ‘traditional’ in their non-Western homelands. These musicians do not want to satisfy the preferences of Europeans, music ethnologists and music lovers for ‘cultural difference’ – at least, not at first listen. They want to create personal musical identities beyond self-exoticisation, commercialisation and propaganda.
World music 2.0 ‘audio-viruses’ are infiltrating the Euro-American mainstream, without currying favour by resorting to exoticism or Orientalisms. The impression one gets from K’Naan’s videos and lyrics is that this Somali-Canadian rapper wants to overtax our visual and auditory nerves. Somali pirates suddenly appear beside the cliché pirates of Walt Disney, lions and elephants alongside Somali fighters and images of the civil war, the Beatles next to stars of African and African-American music history – Bob Marley or Fela Kuti. The fact that K’Naan produced the official Coca Cola video ‘Waving Flag’ for the South African Football World Cup only goes to show how successfully and in what a relaxed way this new generation moves between counter- and majority culture.
From the point of view of post-colonial theoreticians – and also of many world music 2.0 musicians – the celebration of exotica may appear astonishing, even sobering. For many, the long tradition of seeking alternative, exotic sounds and rhythms in creating Western music has negative connotations. In the nineteenth century in the United States, white singers and actors parodied the black population in so-called ‘minstrel shows’; in European music, composers such as Claude Debussy (in Java), Béla Bartók (in Hungary), Leoš Janáček (in Moravia and Slovakia) and many others experimented with folk music traditions; and in the world music (1.0) genre – a repertoire category that came into being in the mid-1980s – pop producers such as Peter Gabriel and Ry Cooder took their inspiration from the regional music of ‘other’ cultures. Since the mid-1980s at the very latest, Indian and Pakistani musicians from the second generation of immigrants in London started to mix sitar melodies and tabla rhythms with club beats. They declared that they were not portraying their homelands in a folkloric light, but rather in a modern one. However, in so doing they frequently reproduced old stereotypes and celebrated an essentialist, multicultural hybridity: on the one hand, Europe as ‘modern’ electronic bass beat (and base), on the other Asia as (pseudo)traditional ornament.
Beirut and Egypt in the twentieth century
World music (1.0) wants to celebrate unimpaired musical forms and idioms, but then mixes sounds of the utterly commercialised present day with the pseudo-historic ‘patina of other times and places’, as Veit Erlmann writes. He defines the intercultural approach of world music 1.0 as ‘pastiche’, by which he means a specific form of parody entirely lacking in polemical or satirical emphasis. Those world music 2.0 musicians who rework exotica have now substituted parody for ‘pastiche’; in so doing they are acting in a similar way to musicians from the pop avant-garde, who always enthused about so-called ‘primitive’ peoples and their fetishes (Primitivism). The Beirut musicians declare themselves fascinated both by the beatniks of the 1950s and ’60s and the psychedelic rock of the 1960s and ’70s, as well as by popular hits of the 1950s. The beatniks and some of their forerunners (Paul Bowles, Alan Hovhaness, Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg etc.) and many psychedelic rock musicians were entranced by literary and musical visions of East Asia, North Africa and the Middle East. The music, however, always arose out of an exchange between musicians of East and West: the Egyptian composer Halim el-Dabh (b. 1921) was loosely in touch with the Beat generation. Today he is regarded as one of the first avant-garde composers of the Arab world. The Devil’s Anvil is one of many US groups to have worked with Arabs in exile. In 1967 they recorded the album Hard Rock from the Middle East. In Beirut at about the same time, some two hundred psychedelic rock bands were vying for the public’s attention. They formed a network of musicians, clubs and fans, thus establishing the terrain on which Arab niche musicians work at their careers today.
Today’s musicians also look back to the tourism industry of the 1950s, when there were Arab nightclubs in New York, Paris, Beirut and Cairo. The music in these nightclubs ‘violated every boundary of authenticity’, writes Anne Rasmussen. The blatancy and simplicity of these artistic caricatures of the Orient serve as a template for some of today’s musicians. It was in the nightclubs of Beirut and Cairo that the Egyptian Omar Khorshid set to music hits like ‘La Cumparasito’ and ‘La Paloma’. Critics call Khorshid the James Last of the Arab world. Many musicians, however, regard him as a genius, on account of his surf-guitar style and his virtuoso tremoli.
The ‘New Wave dabké’ scene in Syria today has a psychedelic sound, as does shaabi music in Egypt. Dabké musicians control their synthesisers using little MIDI boxes. They create the typical Arabic quartertones and imitate the shrill sound of the double-pipe oboe or mijwiz, the classic traditional dabké instrument. The scene has now also found a fan base beyond its original informal cassette and MP3 market – thanks mainly to a world tour by the Syrian singer Omar Souleyman, organised in 2009 by the US indie label Sublime Frequencies. Shortly before his death last year, the BBC’s world music pioneer Charlie Gillett expressed something approaching indignation over one of the singer’s concerts in London, saying that Souleyman was the worst wedding singer he had ever heard. One can plainly state that the old, clean, gentle world music is being attacked and replaced by new, more uncomfortable sounds: Omar Souleyman is to sing on Björk’s new album. Perhaps, then, other local pop styles will also soon be discovered by the international world music 2.0 community: arabesk from Turkey, jil from North Africa, or turbo folk from ex-Yugoslavia – whether as exotic one-minute-wonders or as something rather more remains to be seen.
Old power structures and problem areas
This is already an indication of what is to come. There are still cracks in this vision of a world of multiple modernities. World music 2.0 still arises out of the exchange between the metropolises of the South and the centres of the North – hardly ever out of the various centres of Africa, Asia and Latin America. DJs and producers (DJ Rupture, Ghislain Poirier, Diplo, Richard Russell, etc.), labels (Mad Decent, Man Recordings, Dubsided, XL Recordings, Outhere Records), promoters (Secousse, Favela Chic, Beat Research, etc.), and promoters of culture and the media in the United States and Europe remain their most important sponsors. The problem of economic exploitation has not yet been resolved. Diplo, one of M.I.A.’s producers, was one of those responsible for discovering the loud baile funk, based on drum computer rhythms, from the favelas of Rio de Janeiro. However, his CDs, mix tapes and documentary films (Favela on Blast, Favela Strikes Back) sometimes fail to list the contributing artists. We are often told that exchange and creativity are called for when making music without copyright restrictions, but this only works if artists from North and South encounter one other on an equal basis – as for example when Schlachthofbronx from Munich, Spoek Mathambo and Gnucci Banana from South Africa and their label Man Recordings made their track ‘Ayoba’ officially available for remixing. You can now find more than a hundred remixes of the track on the virtual platform Soundcloud – a success strategy in keeping with the times.
Irony or fun culture?
‘At the start of the new century it’s scarcely still possible to distinguish what should be understood as cultural resistance strategy and what has been conceived as commercial calculation in the marketing departments of the entertainment industry,’ writes Susanne Binas. Often, in the case of world music 2.0, it is not necessarily marketing departments but the musicians themselves who have adopted strategies to try to advance their careers. From this perspective the new focus on exotica can be comprehended as a strategic essentialism, as anything obscure, ironic and exotic profits disproportionately from the avalanche effect of virtual word-of-mouth propaganda on platforms such as Facebook. The South African art-pop collective ‘Die Antwoord’ plays around with the stereotype of the primitive, beer-drinking white South African. What the band is trying to say in doing this remains unclear, as they do their very best to avoid speaking openly and seriously about their motivation. The problem with irony and parody is that they are only understood by insiders, while on the open market they quickly mutate and become merely part of an absurd fun culture.
The exotica of war
The trend for using war and violence as elements of performance provokes similar questions. M.I.A. and Mazen Kerbaj are just two of many examples. The Jamaican singer Terry Lynn, for example, poses on her CD Kingstonlogic 2.0 as a proud slum-dweller, gun in hand. She raps over deep sub-basses, gunshots and abstract beats. In the kuduro video clips from Luanda, filmed on mobile phones, scantily dressed women dance with young men who have lost a leg in the Angolan civil war. The kuduro, blasting out from a parked minibus, is considered to be the first purely electronically produced African music. However, this cheaply produced music finds it difficult to satisfy the aesthetic taste of the transnational world market and its standards of technical production. So it’s not as democratic as all that, this world music 2.0.
M.I.A.’s credibility has been called into question: the daughter-in-law of the Warner Music CEO Edgar Bronfman is accused of using provocation simply as a means to an end, in order to establish herself definitively in the mainstream. Mazen Kerbaj has admitted in interviews that it was in an interview with a German journalist that he first spoke of his suspicion that his music was influenced by memories of the war. Did he do so because he wanted to put an end to the constant questioning about where the local element was concealed in his music? Was it simply a smart move to establish himself as a unique voice in the worldwide field of improvised music? Or was it more than this? It is difficult to judge. From the international perspective, musicians like Kerbaj have replaced the exotic element of world music 1.0 (music of the Orient) with a new exotic element: war. In Lebanon, however, Kerbaj is breaking a taboo by openly discussing the Lebanese civil war; and he is dealing with traumatic experiences.
World music 2.0 is a theoretical construct. The term itself indicates two things. Firstly, world music 2.0 uses the possibilities of the growing digitalised music market for a freer and more diverse production of music. On the other hand, world music 2.0 is still a variant of world music 1.0. It has still not emancipated itself entirely from Eurocentric demands – partly because the sponsors are often European. The music is either sold at curated events (world music festivals, thematic exhibitions) where it is conveyed via exotica, fun, and war; or it is active in its respective transnational culture niches, where it remains as free improvisation, electro-acoustic music, or post-punk. To serve both markets would be the goal of quite a number of these musicians.
However, generally speaking, the shift from world music 1.0 to world music 2.0 is a leap from intercultural to transcultural or even hypercultural and supercultural music forms. In the modus of interculturality, two music traditions (or styles) of different geographic origins are fused in such a way that the relevant traditions (or their clichéd ideas of them) remain for the most part unchanged (e.g. Asian Underground). In other modi, culture is no longer regarded as a closed system. Depending on the modi, cultural references and principles may be more strongly audible (transcultural modus), less strongly (hypercultural modus), or not audible at all (super-cultural modus) [Lull, 2000, 2002]. The different modi often overlap within a single piece of music.
Veit Erlmann suggests that world music (1.0) should be examined according to the way in which the history of a cultural, socio-political context is inscribed into the music (or the product) itself. This approach also makes sense for world music 2.0 – though one cultural modus should not be classified over another. It is also important to pay careful attention to the social, economic and political realities in which a musician lives and in which he or she grew up – as well as who ultimately profits from world music 2.0: the musician, the DJ, the blog writer, the label owner, or the curator.
The actual boundaries of the nation state
On the first Friday of every month, a naturalisation bureau is set up in the Exile Club in Zurich. An actress sits in a simple wooden box. Using two fingers on an old typewriter, she types up people’s applications for citizenship of the fictitious Democratic Republic of Tam Tam. What the club collective Motherland is staging here is performance, but it is also a seriously-intentioned reference to the key factor of contemporary life: the border between the nation state and the global field. Sounds and sound formations may roam across the world, but the musicians themselves are still bound by national and political borders. The decision whether an artist from Africa, Asia or Latin America is able to participate physically in the global network of world music 2.0, or whether he remains just a supplier of sound samples, is taken in the offices of visa and passport administration.
is a Swiss music journalist specialising in the Arab world and world music. He is the founder and editor-in-chief of the website www.noriont.com – independent network for local and global soundscapes.
Translated by Charlotte Collins
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Fikrun wa Fann
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