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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

Tomorrow, the World

By Norman Lebrecht / November 13, 2002

It's the fastest-growing musical genre, and now it's taking over the London Jazz Festival.

One night this summer beside an Italian lake, I went to hear a Sicilian ensemble perform the grating, uningratiating music of their volcanic island. Only they weren't.

In the gathering darkness, I saw that two of the musicians were North Africans, one in a keffiyeh headdress. The music, starting with 12th century monodies, strayed to other times and places. Two young men at a portable mixing desk blended and amplified the ancient savageries with contemporary rhythms.

A purist would have walked away, muttering into his organic beard. Myself, I was enthralled, and not for the first time, by the workings of a modern melting-pot that fuses the sounds of several cultures into something wholly new. We call it, for want of a better term, World Music, and it is rapidly invading and subverting every other genre.

The tenth London Jazz Festival, which opens this weekend, is approximately two-thirds World and playing (of all places) on the BBC's classical Radio 3. A new version of Otello, inflected with Algerian street music, has been commissioned by La Scala, Milan. The hottest item in contemporary classical music is John Adams' El Nino, a cross of Ivy League post-minimalism and Latino ethnicities. Pop singers from Paul Simon to Blur's Damon Albarn have taken creative inspiration out of Africa.

World Music represents a process that is as old as music itself - a meeting of two sonorities that yields new harmonic energy. It's the way music has always grown, and there are signs that World may be leading white men's music, both commercial and classical, out of protracted impotence.

The engagement with ethnicity goes back to the end of the 19th century when western composers became aware that their tonal resources were nearing exhaustion. In back-to-roots research, Bela Bartok and his chum Zoltan Kodaly went out recording old crones in remote villages, venturing as far afield as Morocco. Ralph Vaughan Williams and his pal Gustav Holst did much the same in the hop-picking pubs of Essex and Kent.

The music they collected was rewritten in sonata form and played in metropolitan concert halls. Bartok's second string quartet made innovative use of Arab souk music; RVW's nine symphonies drew heavily on his folksong collection. Theirs was essentially a colonialist venture - a sophisticated culture raiding the undeveloped world for raw material. They came up with great masterpieces, as Lord Elgion came up with his Marbles.

Half a century ago, in ever-deepening crisis, western musicians reached back beyond the baroque into the catacombs of what they called Early Music. Pre-Bach scores came back into play and orchestras learned to perform them on the scratchy instruments of their time. Early Music fostered an archaeological fascination for the past without discerning any compelling modern relevance.

Both of these movements left a residue, hitherto unacknowledged, in the ascendancy of World Music. A growing familiarity with the past and the primeval bred widespread cross-generic curiosity. It is no surprise these days to find the Oxford a capella group I Fagiolini singing in Soweto, on terms of mutual respect and equality, in 12-part harmony with indigenous African choruses.

Authenticity prevails in matters of instrumentation. Where American folk-singers of the 1950s played guitars and fiddles from the nearest general store, World Music performers are likely to accompany themselves on an oudh, a ngoni or a balaton. But there is nothing fundamentalist about their musical arrangements. No-one gets sniffily academic if an Afghan tune is pepped up by disco beat. Fusion is the driving force.

World Music, like Sicily, is an unpoliceable meeting point of continents and cultures. It refuses to be confined in categoric cells. An Argentine duo, billed as tango players at last summer's Music Village in Regents Park, turned out a cross-cultural set of gaucho-flavoured Jewish klezmer tunes. The Japanese film composer Ryuichi Sakamoto (The Sheltering Sky) is messing with bossa nova in an ear-catching new Sony recording. The London Mozart Players, an orthodox chamber orchestra, is on tour with The World Quintet. The Renaissance Big Band, an early music consort, bring sackbuts and crumhorns to the London Jazz Festival. The loudest noise in World Music is the clattering of generic fences.

All of these developments reflect the 21st century lifestyle. In an age of mass travel, the songs of far countries enter our holiday ears and come home as part of our unconscious. In a multicultural city, pentatonic melodies from China and microtonal Arab ballads constitute our daily aural environment. World Music is, among others things, an expression of massive social transformation. More than any other sound, it is the music of tomorrow.

Engagingly, it is largely egalitarian. With the exception of the Senegalese mogul Youssu N'dour and a couple of fado divas from Portugal, World Music has few big egos to pamper. It's the music that draws an audience, not the manufactured aura of celebrity.

The London Jazz Festival is a measure of World ascendancy. Since 1993, the festival has progressively converted from its titular Afro-American type of music into a hotbed of hybridism. One of its debut acts this year is provocatively named 'nojazz', apparently in protest at generic constriction in France, where the band lives and wotks with the popular Algerian rai singer, Faudel. He, in turn, infuses his inflammatory Maghreb agit-prop with flamenco rhythms and rap delivery.

Politics, inescapably, intrudes. Palestinians have protested at the festival's alleged failure to publicise a joint recital by the singer Reem Kelani and the dissident Israeli saxophonist, Gilad Atzmon. The pair may be picketed and security will need to be tight.

World music reflects the world as it is today, a nervous place with few moral certainties. Some may regret World's displacement of jazz, its invasion of the classical concert hall and many of its more meaningless fusions. But the borders of music cannot be protected, any more than we can seal national boundaries against determined migrants. A healthy society must celebrate diversity in the belief that it will bring about cultural regeneration.

Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]



(c) La Scena Musicale 2001