Say the words "punk rock," and most people, whether they're fans or not, will conjure up thoughts of The Clash and The Ramones -- drums, guitar, and bass, the sound stripped down to rock's basics, sped up and turned up twice as loud. But one self-described punk band that's been steadily creating buzz for years now adds an accordion and a fiddle to the mix, as well as women marching around smashing cymbals. The band, Gogol Bordello, calls it "gypsy punk," with the volume, speed, and bad attitude of punk rock laid over Eastern European melodies and rhythms. What's remarkable about the band is that its members, who have emigrated to the U.S. from Ukraine, Russia, Israel, Ecuador, and Ethiopia, feel no more constrained by genre than by nationality. The music is rich and inventive, drawing on not only punk rock and gypsy folk music but also American-style rap (in various languages), reggae-style dancehall singing, and dub effects.
The popularity of Gogol Bordello's genre-blending sound defies the conventional wisdom about American musical tastes -- that we never venture outside our own narrowly defined cultures. Music marketers' assignation of a band to a particular genre alarmingly depends more on the band members' races than on their sound. The local Austin "alternative rock" (read: music by white guys ages 18 to 35) station finds it appropriate to inject hip-hop by the Beastie Boys and Eminem into its rotation, but darker-skinned artists with the same sound are only heard on "urban" stations. If your band comes from anywhere but the U.S. or the U.K., welcome to the section at the back of the store reserved for middle-aged hippies broadening their horizons, titled "World Music."
Music marketers have yet to realize that American ears are opening up to a wider variety of sounds. It just makes demographic sense. Unlike the baby boomers, Gen X and Gen Y have grown up in an America with escalating immigration, affirmative action, and a general emphasis on that right-wing bogeyman "multiculturalism." Two major trends that demographers talk about, the "graying of America" and the "browning of America," are trends that largely diverge from each other, with white people still dominating the older, grayer section of the population and a much more diverse mix of races, ethnicities, and even religions characterizing the younger. Which isn't to diminish the fact that this is still a racist and xenophobic nation, but "kids these days" deserve some credit for taking steps toward more progressive views on diversity. Add the globalizing power of the Internet to the mix, and you've got a whole generation whose tastes are influenced by a hodgepodge of cultures.
The urge to borrow and take inspiration from the music of other cultures is nothing new, of course. The Beatles famously helped introduce the sitar to American and British pop music after they gained an interest in India. The band Santana made a splash bringing Latin American rhythms to American rock music in the late 1960s. Musicians in the 1950s, mostly African American at first, borrowed some of the sounds from country-western music and injected them into R&B to create what became known as rock ?n' roll. R&B itself developed from two separate arms of black musical tradition, combining upbeat jazz riffs with blues rhythms. In the Caribbean, musicians were hearing R&B and rock ?n' roll and manipulating them into the local sounds that became ska, rocksteady, and reggae.
But the concept of blending the music of various cultures kicked into high gear in the 1970s. Punk musicians in the U.K. like The Clash, The Specials, and The Slits began to borrow not just a sound here or a sound there from Caribbean music but to lift entire genres like reggae and ska and put a punk spin on them. In the U.S., the jazz fusion band Mind Power decided it would rather be a punk band and ended up combining punk with reggae to create a distinctive and widely copied sound called hardcore. In the late 1970s, bands like the Talking Heads began to borrow heavily from traditional African music for their rhythms, creating hits like "Life During Wartime."
But it was hip-hop in the 1980s that really opened the door to radically blending sounds from different cultures. Hip-hop pioneer Afrika Bambaataa didn't limit himself to disc-jockeying strictly from one or two kinds of music but spread his net wide, layering the sounds of funk and disco with European electronic music and rock ?n' roll, creating an entirely new sound. One of his big hits was "Planet Rock," based on the herky-jerky avant-garde electronic music of the German band Kraftwerk, a sound heretofore unheard that was defined as hip-hop. Bambaataa's mentality is still evident in today's hip-hop hits, with most of your better DJs feeling empowered to bring a variety of cultural influences into one track. Kanye West's recent smash hit album Graduation, samples French techno, 1970s German electro-rock, jazz, blues, and Elton John.
Bambaataa wasn't just a musical innovator. He envisioned popular music as a force to smooth over the cultural tensions that create hostility, misunderstanding, and violence. His music will make even the grumpiest cynics bounce their heads and wave their hands in the air for "peace, unity, love and having fun," to quote one of his refrains, but it's far from a simplistic, starry-eyed message. Bambaataa has rolled up his sleeves and done the hard work of making peace, working both abroad to help end apartheid in South Africa and at home in the U.S. to quell gang violence. His music is an extension of that.
A world free of cultural tension is still far off, but Bambaataa's hopes for music as a cultural uniter took another step toward reality with the electronic music of the 1990s. The style has turned into such a worldwide cross-pollinator that it's become a cliché in techno music for the vocalist to call out all the various world hotspots ("Cairo! Buenos Aires! Seoul!") where the same hot dance music is played. Various subgenres of electronic dance music, from techno to house to trance to drum and bass, blend the sounds of American and European DJs with the influence of African drumming. And that's just the rhythm section; DJs mix music from every corner of the globe into one big mishmash.
Hip-hop may have started the process, and electronic dance music may have continued it, but now an entire generation has grown up hearing music influenced by a blend of cultures and genres. Today's hipster/underground music scene, where bands get their start before going mainstream, is populated by artists who have rebelled against racially loaded genre distinctions. Like Gogol Bordello, the band Beirut draws inspiration from the folk music associated with immigrants. Brazilian electro-rockers Cansei de Ser Sexy are led by a half-Japanese woman who sings in both English and Portuguese about American pop culture (sample song titles: "I Wanna Be Your J.Lo" and "Meeting Paris Hilton"). The group has been featured in an iPod commercial. Another Apple commercial favorite, Ozomatli, blends the Latin American sounds of salsa and cumbia with hip-hop, reggae, and Middle Eastern dance music. Artists like Professor Shehab and the Qaballah Steppers mix hip-hop and reggae with traditional Persian music, while the Gorillaz, Bloc Party, and Gnarls Barkley have all found wild success with a blend of disco, hip-hop, funk, and rock.
Even the mainstream music scene is becoming more genre-bending. The Colombian pop icon Shakira is one of the artists demonstrating that the American listening audience might be running ahead of the marketers. After putting out an English-language album that hit big in the U.S., Shakira butted heads with her label. "The industry would have liked me to put out another English album six months after Laundry Service," she told The Economist last July. Her follow-up, the Spanish-language album Fijación Oral Vol. 1, proved the label wrong when it debuted at No. 4 on the Billboard charts. Her doubters should have seen it coming.
Innovative Sri Lankan hip-hop star M.I.A., who grew up in Sri Lanka, India, and the U.K., is another perfect example of the kind of cross-cultural 21st-century artist Afrika Bambaataa envisioned. M.I.A. has benefited immensely from the way the Internet allows people around the world to share styles and ideas across geographic borders. And her fan base in the U.S. grew almost exclusively by word of mouth, demonstrating yet again that listeners are way ahead of marketers. (The mainstream music business has since caught on -- M.I.A. has been heralded as one of the best working artists today by publications like Rolling Stone and Blender.) M.I.A. intended to record her most recent album, Kala, in the U.S., but visa complications prevented her from doing so. Instead, she hopped around the world, recording the various tracks in different countries, giving the record a truly international flavor.
These multicultural music trends are only in their infancy and could still be smothered in the cradle. Yet there's reason for optimism. The number of artists pushing this music-without-borders ethic is still small, but their audiences are big and growing, demonstrating that people -- particularly young people -- are hungry for more diverse, global, innovative music. It's time for the record industry to catch up.