For my first installment of "A Cultural Manifesto," I've been asked to write an introduction familiarizing readers with the type of content they'll see here each week. NUVO asked me to discuss my background as a DJ and how I've used music as a tool to explore local and global culture. But before I get to all of that, I need to get something off my chest.
I hate world music.
No, I don't really hate it - I despise it. Yet somehow I always find the label attached to my name.
Over the last couple years I've gained some minor notoriety in Indianapolis for a series of themed dance parties I've hosted under the banner of Cultural Cannibals. At these events I've worked with a broad range of musical styles, from the psychedelic sambas of Brazilian Tropicalia, to the funky highlife rhythms of Nigerian Afrobeat.
I hoped my nuanced approach in presenting these varied sounds would encourage listeners to pursue a deeper understanding of the music and the cultures who produced them. But, alas, that did not happen and everything I did seemed to get reduced down to that meaningless catchall: world music.
I admit, I've always hated "world music." I hated it long before I ever conceived of becoming a DJ. For me the term always seemed to assert that all music created outside of the Western tradition was inherently different. And not only was it different, it was of lesser artistic value. Otherwise, how could it so easily be tossed into that generic, amorphous dumping ground? Undeserving of a proper name or history, it's all just world music, a term that functions as a musical equivalent of the anonymous placeholder "John Doe."
The existence of the world music designation affirms the presence of a troubling habit in the Western world to assume the superiority of its own culture. It tells us that we are the norm and everything else is just an exotic aberration. It's an attitude drenched in outdated perceptions of race and social place. The world-music bin at your local record shop might as well be labeled the "Jim Crow" section.
I also find that the term becomes meaningless in its attempt to define such a broad patch of musical territory. How can this one word adequately represent the output of a classical Indonesian gamelan ensemble, the hard electro-stomp of Angolan kuduro and the slick productions of Middle Eastern pop singers like Egypt's Amr Diab?
A popular kuduro song from Buraka Som Sistema:
Ultimately what bothers me most is the inaccuracy of the term when applied to me. So much of what I do is a reflection of my life in Indianapolis, drawn from my experiences here in our community.
This includes memories of hours spent perusing music at the Indian grocery on Lafayette Road and my endless questions for the shopkeeper. It includes witnessing karaoke performances of traditional Ethiopian songs at the old Queen of Sheba restaurant on Indiana Avenue. And I remember a Mauritian driver who was so touched by my interest in Mauritian culture, he yanked his cassette out of the tape deck and shoved it in my hands as a gift.
The music I play is not an exotic novelty or a souvenir from some far-away place; it's an honest representation of our local culture.
When I'm moved by a piece of music or work of art from an unfamiliar culture, I feel as though I've shared an experience with the people of that culture. It can be a transformational experience. Having been deeply touched by the voices of Pakistani qawwali singers like Abida Parveen and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, it is impossible for me to ever think of Pakistan as the enemy or a threat to America, despite what my TV tells me. I'm always hopeful that the music I play will provoke a similar response in others.
Legendary qawwali singer Abida Parveen performing on Pakistani TV:
It is beyond naive for me to think that a dance party or newspaper article will change even one person's mind. But for me, sharing in a culture's music and dance is to share in their way of life, to walk in their shoes for a moment. If you allow it, that experience can touch your soul and possibly even change your life. I know it changed mine.
In future editions of "A Cultural Manifesto," I'll focus on the points where local and global cultures meet. Occasionally, I might write about interesting trends in global music with no local framework, or noteworthy local topics with no global connection. Either way, I hope to use this space to examine important and relevant cultures that might otherwise fall through the cracks.
Each edition of Cultural Manifesto will be accompanied by a podcast from Kyle Long, spotlighting new music from around the globe.
1. Ocote Soul Sounds - Tumba Del Payaso (ESL, 2011)
2. Kiran Ahluwalia w/ Tinariwen - Musst Musst (Avokado, 2011)
3. Tinariwen w/ Kyp Malone & Tunde Adebimpe (TV on the Radio) - Tenere Taqqim Tossam (Anti Records, 2011)
4. Amadou & Mariam w/ Santigold - Dougou Badia (Nonesuch, 2012)
5. tUnE-yArDs - The Bizness (4AD, 2011)
6. Orchestre Poly-Rythmo w/ Paul Thomson & Nick McCarthy (Franz Ferdinand) - Lion Is Burning (Strut, 2011)