Balinese gamelan sounds like magic: part rain on the roof, hammering down in relentless cascades as it does on this small, tropical Indonesian island; part sunlit shimmer, as the quavering melodies float from the synchronized mallets of as many as 50 or 100 musicians in the gamelan orchestra. Balinese gamelan sounds impossible--fragile and invigorating--and for those of us who hear it for the first time as adults, it is wildly intoxicating. In its currently most common form, the boisterous kebyar, it is produced largely on metallophones--metal gongs and xylophone-like instruments--often led by a breathy wooden flute. It is the music of one island's cultural and religious ceremonies, distinct even from its Javanese counterpart, being nearly always louder and faster than the stately court compositions of the neighboring isle. Balinese gamelan is an art firmly tied to its place of origin, but in the West these days it will most often be found listed under "world music," a category that's billed as cutting across geographic boundaries and demonstrating a new cross-fertilization among the world's cultures.
Like "jazz" or "blues," "world music" is a marketing rubric used by radio programmers and record store buyers, which has caught on with the general public. But while those older terms may be inexact--who is to say where blues leaves off and jazz or rock picks up?--at least the material in each genre shares common traits, a 12-bar structure or improvised solos, that give the category some meaning. World music is instead an odds-and-ends bin of ethnomusicologists' finds and pop stars' patchwork projects. The grouping expresses less about the music than about the marketing strategy--a strategy that as it succeeds commercially is undermining the artistic invention it claims to promote, eclipsing the truly original global collaborations that are out there.
Much of the "world music" of the guide books and record stores would better be termed "other people's music." In this file, listeners can find such disparate sounds as Balinese gamelan, Jamaica's choppy reggae rhythms, and the eerie simultaneous tones of a single Tuvan throat singer. These aren't music styles that draw inspiration from around the globe; many, in fact, grow out of ancient traditions and are connected to their homelands in ways that most American and European pop isn't. This is a point world music promoters miss entirely. "As cultural and political walls crumble," the liner notes to a Warner Bros./Reprise World Music Sampler pontificate, "the universal impact of global grooves cannot be denied." But in truth, such easy notions of globalism and universality do more to obscure than to illuminate the meaning that these traditional musics have to their musicians and their audiences.
Just as the labels "race," "rhythm and blues," and, more recently, "urban" have been used by white marketers to lump together black popular music ranging from gospel-bred soul to gangsta rap, so "world" is now used to describe everything non-Western to an American audience. It's a tag designed to attract buyers who are eager for new sounds--and are presumed to be uninterested in actually understanding them. Were we being honest, we would call this music "exotica."
An even greater part of what is being passed off as the new global fusion is simply mix-and-match. A Western musician "discovers" a non-Western talent and plugs this artist's work into a very conventional Western pop format. The unfamiliar sound adds spice, and the New Age overlay of political correctness adds marketing steam. It's as if we were somehow supporting Australian aboriginal rights by listening to Western rock that happens to have a didgeridoo echoing the usual bass line. This is music marketed as much to Western consciences as to Western ears--and it is equally unchallenging to both.
We probably have Paul Simon's Graceland to thank for it. With this 1986 album Simon hit the timing jackpot. On Graceland, he enlivened the waning appeal of his pleasant, inconsequential pop with the vocal charm of the a cappella Ladysmith Black Mambazo, a group of black South African musicians, just as international opposition to apartheid was coming to a head. In truth, the music has a freshness that lasts under repeated listenings: Simon's signature gentle melodies mesh well with the rolling harmonies of Ladysmith and the bouncy rhythms of mbaqanga, or "township jive." But the overall effect is soothing rather than revolutionary. The song structures are unchanged from the basic radio-friendly verse-chorus-verse of Western pop, the harmonies mostly predictable, the rhythms only slightly altered from the familiar. This was no fusing of essential elements from different cultures, no discovering of similarities between another music's meaning in its own context and the meaning of your own.
No, the spirit propelling Graceland onto the charts and more recently onto dozens of "best of the century" lists was more political than aesthetic, and while the cause was undeniably worthy, that did not make the art any more exciting.
Simon's success brought us a host of second-rate followers--Dr. Didg, Dave Matthews, and their ilk--who add an accordion, bodhran, or didgeridoo to their music and sell the results as morally compelling. Unlike Simon, who did open the market for Ladysmith and other groups similarly palatable to audiences raised on Western pop, his dullest (and, unfortunately, most popular) imitators offer only a new kind of parochialism.
Their music is offensive on its own terms, and also because it has eclipsed the honest collaborative work that is going on in the world--and, in fact, was being done by artists who reached beyond their borders long before the world music category existed. Dizzy Gillespie heard the rhythms of Africa distilled through the work of Cuban musicians and helped work that syncopation back into American jazz in the 1940s. Brazil's Antonio Carlos Jobim returned the favor in the 1950s, when he slid the cool tones of West Coast American jazz into the rhythms of his native samba, and came up with the bossa nova.
Ten years later, when Jamaican bands, such as the Skatalites, discovered American rhythm and blues, they incorporated the souped-up tempos and some of the instrumentation--notably the horns--into their own version of an Afro-Caribbean sound and created ska. When English punk bands heard the music Caribbean immigrants were making in their clubs in the 1970s, they brought those clipped beats back into rock, enlivening punk's original no-frills sound with a rhythmic variety still heard on rock radio today.
These artists came up with musics utterly distinctive and personal. Jobim wasn't just duplicating a sound. What entranced him was the emotional essence of what the American musicians were doing--a freedom-seizing attitude that spoke to his own condition--and that's what he incorpo-rated into his music.
Today, too, there are serious artists for whom the global influence is subtle and organic. We do live in a shrinking world, and not just because CDs of Bulgarian choirs or Arab ululations can be purchased online; today's best global fusions arise out of a more personal and intense engagement with what was once the music of elsewhere. But with the flood of so-called "world music," these musicians are in danger of being overlooked. Take Zap Mama, a Brussels-based vocal group that draws on the Bantu as well as the European heritage of its leader Marie Daulne. Before Daulne was born, her family fled its native Zaire after her Belgian father was killed in a political upheaval. She has made an unpredictable peace between the gently percolating polyrhythms and cascading harmonies of her mother's continent and the jazzy funk and playful soul of her father's world.
Even in Bali, art is reaching beyond its borders and with results far more intriguing than simplistic add-a-sound ideas about world music would have suggested. Ketut Yuliarsi is a Balinese gamelan composer who now writes, in the Western tradition, out of purely personal inspiration and not in the age-old manner of composing for religious purposes. He presents his works at the annual arts festival in Bali's capital, Denpasar, and his group Bodiswara has played in Tokyo, Singapore, and Australia. But when he tries to have his pellucid compositions performed around his home island, he is invariably asked, What ritual is it for? What festival does that tune accompany? When he cannot name a purpose, more often than not his work is refused.
The resistance he is facing is a good indicator of the musical challenge that daring collaborations provoke. It recalls the confusion that reportedly greeted the bossa nova in the 1950s. The rhythm is wrong, it's not samba, Brazilian critics said. You're right, it's not samba, Jobim answered them with the tune "Desifinado," which translates as "out of tune." But the rhythm isn't wrong; it's just what it ought to be. The song was an international hit. Its lyrics:
If you insist upon classifying
My behavior as antimusical,
I, even lying, must argue
That this is bossa nova.
This is very natural.
Such art without boundaries is truly world music, whether or not the marketers get behind it. ¤
The instruments pictured are the didgeridoo (opposite page), accordion, and bodhran.