Through the wires
Born and raised in internet chatrooms and DIY studios, world music 2.0 has colonised international playlists, writes Jace Clayton. In June 1987, a group of music marketers met to discuss how they might best sell non-western music to audiences in Europe and America. What to call all this stuff? "Hot" and "tropical" were among the candidates, but "world music" won out. From the start, it wasn't a genre description like "rock", but a promotional catchphrase. All music is music of the world, but "world music" made a new section for record-store bins, and that's where its stunning usefulness remains.
Recent years have seen the emergence of what is sometimes called "world music 2.0", an organism native to the era of widespread internet access. Whereas world music tends to remain top-down - managers groom bands, publicists chaperone album reception, booking agents handle live appearances - world music 2.0 is a bottom-feeder, obsessed with microcultures breeding on YouTube, invite-only chat rooms and other obscure corners of the internet where the line between producer and consumer blurs, and most songs end up being given away for free.
The rise of cheap computers and music software piracy has led to an ever-increasing swarm of subgenres, from Berber R&B to West African hiplife. The songs make their way online to kids around the world for whom similarities in methodology - MP3 players on "shuffle", shared software techniques, MySpace-optimised networking and self-presentation skills - trump genre as an organising principle. On their DJ mixes, in their remixes, and at their parties, Argentine electro rubs up against South African house music by way of Belgians evoking Detroit techno, plus or minus a Lady Gaga remix. It's not intentionally "eclectic", at least not for folks used to topic-hopping across the web. It's just excited, in a way made possible by the internet's sometimes anarchic approaches to context and intellectual property.
The past year saw the feedback loop between technology and emerging music hit a fever pitch. World music 2.0 in 2009 was, among other things, Mexican producers living on America's East Coast remixing electronic cumbia tunes from their home country with trappings of Arab imaginary. Jersey City's DJ Tenebroso and other Mexican Orientalists sample Bollywood soundtracks more frequently than anything Middle Eastern, but their songs nonetheless sport titles like "Arab Lament" or "Taliban Guitar", and their YouTube mash-ups gravitate towards bellydance videos. The omnivorous logic of sampling doesn't heed original context; the key question isn't "where did this come from?" but "can it work for me?" Tenebroso also reminds us that world music 2.0's waves of influence don't move from the centre to peripheries. Instead, edges look to edges - and so we've got Ivorian singers referencing underground UK rap and Peruvian experimentalists crossbreeding Andean music with industrial noise.
The year's best globalista beats album came from Schlachthofbronx, a Bavarian trio whose bootleg remixes gained infamy on the international blog scene. This Munich crew makes club hits with basslines fattened up from UK dubstep, brisk drum programming that nods to the Caribbean rave music of soca, and guest vocalists from Johannesburg, Brazil and beyond. Not to mention lots of traditional Bavarian brass-band samples. Most world music 2.0 seems to envision itself sweating in unspecified sultry climes - the word "tropical" bloomed across countless flyers this year, clueing clubbers in to a fashion aesthetic of bright colours and a non-genre-specific approach to music. Schlachthofbronx whitens up the tropical, grafting Bavarian pride onto black bass influences. Their embrace of the Euro-exotic is at once perversely funny and functional: anyone who so wishes can now spice up an Africa-themed dance party with conservative Munich volksmusik - and the crowd won't miss a beat.
Without a doubt, the worst thing to happen to world music 2.0 this year was the death of the online music-sharing service Imeem. Remember making mixtapes for your friends? By providing simple tools for creating online playlists that you could easily share like old cassette mixes (but faster), Imeem became host to an incredible range of musical subcultures. Young, America-based, and non-white, it was arguably the web's best place to listen to highly local dance genres such as Chicagoan juke (loose beats cranked up in service of a hyper-speed teen dance style known as footworking) and crunk cumbia (a Texas-based mix of cumbia samples with hip-hop from the American south).
On December 8, 2009 Rupert Murdoch's MySpace purchased Imeem, just so it could pull the plug on it. The fact that world music 2.0 is an upgrade doesn't mean it's without bugs. It's certainly exciting to share what you've got with the great speed and reach enabled by "cloud" computing. But clouds are only great until business deals delete them. This means that hydra-headed world music 2.0 does a much better job with momentum than with documentation or self-preservation; under-the-radar mutations tend to leave light footprints. But watching it happen is fascinating: listeners journeying further afield than ever before, eager to fold what they hear back into whatever they've got cooking up at home.
Jace Clayton, regular contributor to The Review, is a writer and musician in Brooklyn, New York.