Mystery Music March in April

The Rough Guides To World Music

Truth be told, I’m afraid that my sudden interest in classical music isn’t simply going to be a phase. There are some interests which like a friendship or even marriage stay with you and undercut everything else for the rest of your life, something which I hope classical music will be. Otherwise, it’s short flirts and flings, passionate detours which are exciting while they last. Which for me, unfortunately may be world music. For a time, I loved everything about world music, but as in writing this, I’m listening to massed compilations of the stuff and realising that it’s for the first time in years.

The first so-called world music I ever heard, like everyone else, was probably the backing track that Paul Simon used for Graceland. I once lied that it was first album I ever bought, but the truth will always catch up with you and by the end of the night I’d admitted to it being Five Star’s Silk & Steel. Uncool then, uncool now. Anyway, despite hearing these mysterious sounds and being able to sing the lyrics back to front that was as far as my interest in African music went. I was in my teens and had other things on my mind.

Which is a shame because its during the late Eighties that the first great marketing push happened for world music in this country. What I was later amazed to discover is that in the slipstream of the Paul Simon album (which he followed up with Rhythm of the Saints which replaced Africa with the sounds of South America), record companies and shops were looking to take advantage of the interest of the public and in 1987 had what’s now seen as landmark meeting in which they thrashed out exactly what should be included in the genre and what it should be called. The music was out there, but it was so diffuse and varied that it hadn’t naturally developed a label and somewhere for it to go in the racks.

The ‘world music’ genre, then, is a construct, a way of guiding the consumer towards non-Anglophile music that can’t easily otherwise be categorized. It’s as imperfect, idiosyncratic and incoherent as ‘classical music’ and at worst is a ghetto in which the folk sounds of countries as diverse as Japan and the Sudan are thrown in together, along with rap music that happens to be in French or the Soiux language and Aboriginal dance. But it does provide a guide for shoppers and like classical can become a badge of honour for the discerning listener to feel superior.

Fast forward to the early naughties and I’m looking for something to study at Liverpool University’s Centre for Lifelong Learning. Having exhausted all of the creative writing and drama courses I’m glancing over towards music and still having the fragrance of three days in Paris in my lungs and being passionately friends with a Greek girl decide to give ‘World Music’ a try, expecting an investigation into the many years of Eurovision. And some yodeling.

What I discovered, with the help of our tutor Simone, was everything I wrote about in the last two paragraphs but one and so much more. Each lecture would cover a different topic and although it was all but a taster, after a few years in the musical wilderness (it’s true, I had no idea what kind of music I liked) it offered some much needed direction. By the end I was tuning in to Late Junction nightly and hotly awaiting the BBC Radio 2 World Music Awards.

Fortuitously at the same time HMV in the city slashed the price of its Rough Guide To World Music cds which meant that as well as learning all about these sounds that were new to me, I could soundtrack my life with them. Each Monday lunchtime I’d buy a compilation and for the rest of the week that’s all I would listen to, really getting to know whatever tracks had been curated to appear. That’s when I learned that much of the time, you really don’t get to experience music properly unless you simply just listen to it.

The Rough Guide compilations attempt to provide a representative sample of the music of a country or world music sub-genre. It’s an impossible task – what would a similar album about England look like? (Oh) and so cleverly what the compilers tend to do is select music designed to surprise the listener or break their preconceived ideas. The Rough Guide To Australian Aboriginal Music might begin with a didgeridoo but the second track is an acoustic Brown Eyed Girl soundalike and as the album progresses we find Cagean minimalism, R&B and even pop.

That pattern is repeated across the albums, the impression being that although there are certainly indigenous genres, more recently, as with other art forms, there’s been a process of influence and appropriation and regional variations on a theme, that in fact it’s an adoration that Without Reservation should be stuck in the World & Folk > Native American area of the Amazon database they’re not doing anything too different to the likes of Above The Law who’re promoted with the R&B genres. Predictably, probably, I had the most affinity with the European music, the musics of Spain, Scandinavia, Italy and my favourites were French.

Eventually after thirty weeks there courses ended (two of them) and although I carried on listening for at least a year, the impetuous had evaporated. I still listen to some of that European music, but my ears couldn’t be reconfigured to enjoy African or Asian sounds and Bollywood doesn’t move me. I need structure, tonal rather than atonal sounds, something I’ve discover when trying to work out what’s going on in something like Harrison Birtwistle's Panic. But as you do with these things, I still look back fondly and enjoy the nostalgia when one of these tracks pops up randomly on my mp3 player.

No comments: