Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 15 July 2020

On World Music Day, we ask: is the genre simply another example of cultural appropriation?

We take an in-depth look at the music style that people either love or loathe

Beninese singer Angelique Kidjo is viewed as a star of the World Music genre. Getty Images
Beninese singer Angelique Kidjo is viewed as a star of the World Music genre. Getty Images

To say that Together Let Go is eclectic is an understatement.

Released by the London and Dubai theatre production house Sisters Grimm, the song launched in celebration of World Music Day, which is held annually on June 21.

Fittingly, it is a globetrotting affair embracing various musical styles and languages. There are dollops of Arabic folk provided by singers DB Gab and Maydan Hamza from Egypt, in addition to the UAE’s very own Arqam Al Abri.

Other international vocalists added their own flair and traditions, including South Africa’s Joseph Shabalala from celebrated choir group Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Brazil’s Dito Martins and Balinese collaborator Yasmin Priyatmoko Bohn.

A stirring string accompaniment is provided by The Philharmonic Chorus of Tokyo and that deep sonorous voice behind the spoken-word intro is none other than British Oscar-winning actor Jeremy Irons.

The whole project, which is accompanied by a majestic video, is lavish and epic. But how do we describe the music exactly? Is it pop, folk or even neoclassical?

It is a storied query echoing back to a particular closed-door discussion held 23 years ago, this week.

On June 29, 1987, a group of record label owners, festival organisers and music magazine editors convened for an industry powwow in a London pub, the Empress of Russia. They were there to discuss ways to market eclectic artists who were releasing and performing on labels and at festivals.

By the end of the meeting, the term “World Music” was born.

Thus began the life of a genre that is equally loved and loathed.

Supporters hail it for its inclusive vision and for making stars of little-known international acts such as Benin’s Angelique Kidjo and Algeria’s Cheb Khaled.

Detractors view it as a form of vapid, musical kumbaya-ism, full of cliches and cultural appropriation.

‘World Music’ becomes cultural appropriation when it is about box-ticking

Ella Spira, songwriter of Together Let Go from Sisters Grimm, knows the latter misgivings well.

They often come in the form of discreet murmurs or direct accusations whenever she and creative partner, former Royal Ballet ballerina Pietra Mello-Pittman, roll into town.

The duo are behind lavish musical theatre productions staged internationally in locations ranging from London’s West End to Singapore and China. Each of their productions are defined by cross-cultural music and dance collaboration.

Previous shows include The Voices of the Amazon, described as a “dance musical from the heart of Brazil” and the “Zulu ballet” of Inala, of which the soundtrack was nominated for a 2016 Grammy Award for Best World Music Album.

Speaking from their new base in Dubai, Spira confirms that Together Let Go is the opening shot of a planned new production stage show set in the Arab world, featuring a range of regional and international musical and dance talent.

It is that collaborative spirit, Spira says, that defines World Music and Sisters Grimm’s ethos.

“And I think that is an important point to highlight because we have been rightfully asked why these two white girls are coming to our country and working with our respective cultures,” she says.

“But I always thought that where we come in is not to appropriate, but to collaborate and use our respective skills, almost like facilitators. We ultimately want to give voice to cultures that are not represented in the live entertainment space.”

What made World Music grow from a relatively benign term to a problematic one, Spira says, is the number of artists not respecting the qualities that underpin the genre.

“World Music is about going as an artist to another territory and being vulnerable in another culture. You invest yourself emotionally, in the time you give, and financially, to learn about the culture and finding the right people to work with,” she says.

“[It] becomes cultural appropriation when it is about box-checking. You can hear it and it often makes me just cringe. This is when the artist is just interested in getting ‘that flavour’ from the culture, without working collaboratively together. It sounds like wallpaper.”

A new musical conversation

These are pitfalls Bill Bragin has been studiously avoiding for nearly three decades.

As the director behind the international music festivals Barzakh, in NYU Abu Dhabi Arts Centre, and New York’s Global Fest, the American acknowledges World Music is far from the ideal term, hence omitting the description from both events.

While initially useful to introduce new indigenous sounds, Bragin says listeners are now looking for something more dynamic.

“It is created very practically as a marketing term, as a way to connect artists with audiences,” he tells The National. “From the beginning, everybody kind of understood that it had a lot of shortcomings, because the music that gets lumped in together is extraordinarily different. It also has a huge bias to music that is from someplace else and not [the West],” he says.

“So when it comes to Barzakh and Global Fest, I have always tried to focus, instead, on what the music is doing, which is drawing from particular roots and putting it in conversations with different cultures and periods. I think that this is really where we are right now.”

The name could have been much worse

Much of the stigma comes as a result of online streaming overtaking CDs as the favoured choice of music consumption.

With World Music essentially created as a new category to sell in record stores, the term finds itself in the precarious position of being an analogue idea in a digital world.

The genre has been smashed by streaming sites, with previously defined World Music artists now sitting in consumer playlists defined by either mood (Youssou N’Dour’s Seven Seconds can be found in the Night Shift collection) or the regionally targeted, such as Acoustic Arabic featuring Algerian singer-songwriter Souad Massi.

So does that mean World Music will soon go the way of the Walkman? Not so fast, says Mike Fairburn, the general manager of Sony Music Entertainment Middle East. He thinks the genre will mostly endure in the live music market.

“When it comes to music consumption, there is no longer such a thing as tribalism, with people now more than happy to listen to many different styles of music,” he says.

“That’s not the same for the live music consumer. That is tribal. It is, ‘I like this artist and I will spend Dh395 on that band’. While they like different genres and they will happily stream it, when it comes to paying to experience some of these styles, well, that is a different thing.”

As for the name of the genre, Fairburn thinks it ultimately does more good than harm. People will always need signposts to navigate a growing ocean of undiscovered music.

He says the same thing is happening in the literary world with international editions of the Booker Prize, which includes the International Prize for Arabic Fiction.

“Because we have Kindles, does that mean we don’t need the Booker Prize? These platforms and marketing devices continue to be important in highlighting great works that we didn’t know about,” he says.

“When it comes to music, think about it, there are 50 million songs out there, online right now. So anything that can get those songs that are on the bottom end of the streaming pile and give them a spotlight is a wonderful thing.”

While the conversation regarding World Music will undoubtedly continue for years to come, it could have been worse.

In minutes of that fateful meeting at the Empress of Russia, which are available online, you will find other discarded names for the genre, including “tropical” and “ethnic”.

Updated: June 21, 2020 08:38 PM

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