Soapbox: Thoughts of a World Music Rover | Songlines
Monday, April 11, 2022

Soapbox: Thoughts of a World Music Rover

By Gerald Seligman

Gerald Seligman muses on the unique global sounds that once caught his ear and champions the undying spark of creativity


At the age of 14 I turned from rock’n’roll to Bulgarian choirs. Those Bulgarian harmonies and dissonances, and then the Nonesuch Explorer Series, set me on a path I still tread today. This was back in 1969, when we’d surf shops rather than search engines. I’d explore the dozens of immigrant neighbourhoods of New York to find music, sometimes just a bin tucked away in the back of a hardware store in Queens. I’d even hound taxi drivers: “No, really I do want to hear your cassettes.” And so I went from Grand Funk to Grand Kallé, from chamber music to gamelan, from The Stones to Sweeney’s Men.

What was I looking for? Music that baffled me, stimulated me, made me pause, music I couldn’t understand, or figure out even after a dozen listenings. In his poem ‘Ulysses’, Tennyson writes of Homer’s aging traveller looking back: ‘I am a part of all that I have met / Yet all experience is an arch wherethro’ / Gleams that untravell’d world whose margin fades / For ever and forever when I move.’ Ask Ulysses: it’s the journey as much as the destination, and the journey never ends.

I share pedigree with many who came to look beyond. We were a small group, 40 years ago, explorers all, in an ‘untravell’d world.’ We didn’t know what we were looking for, exactly, but we knew what we were escaping. Western pop in particular lives in the familiar. It is often about putting a new twist on something known, comfortable, safe. It is knowing the terrain even before getting there. The world music scene was about getting lost. 

In many ways it was about following what I’d call the spark. It’s hard to predict before it happens, but sometimes cultures suddenly catch fire. There is a flash of creativity that builds, spreads, sustains itself, then just as suddenly burns out. How long it lasts, whether it finds fuel is hard to say. It often sparks when contrary elements impact one another unexpectedly. When African slaves in the US were forbidden drums, they transposed a rhythmic tradition onto other instruments. And so came syncopation and a more rhythmic drive to the guitar, banjo and violin to dance. When that met European song forms a new music evolved leading to the blues, then jazz, then rock’n’roll. When Senegalese musicians heard Cuban music, bands cropped up everywhere, and soon enough melded it with their own traditions, while the Congolese, hearing the same music, went in a different direction, taking rumba to places it hadn’t been before. When Caetano Veloso, Milton Nascimento and friends heard The Beatles, they sought to adapt those influences onto their own traditions. In New York, newly arrived Puerto Ricans met Cubans and Dominicans and rammed urban intensity into homegrown traditions creating salsa. Throughout Europe, in Asia, South America, people are always reaching back to carry forward and creating something new in the process.

A privilege of the world scene is that, by not being confined by our own borders, we can follow that spark wherever it glows. Whether the spark is in Korea, Colombia or Mali this cauldron of the new shuns purism. Influences are marathon runners who hand batons to the next runners for their own races. 

Those first years, what we sought was the unique. Over time, that transformed. Peoples mixed more, whether due to the diversity of their own neighbourhoods or by picking up and moving on for a host of complex reasons. Increasingly ‘home’ is an urban cacophony of languages, customs, peoples all bunched together, a phenomenon that offers rich gains but, like all change, some losses too. Some traditions, while evolving into new forms, lose what made them distinct. We live online and that can be chaos. Access to everything is a gift as often as it is not, it smooths rough edges, erases distinctions, renders the unpredictable routine, stifles surprise. Increasingly, it reinforces conformity as we pick and choose the echo chambers we reverberate in. This has infiltrated the world scene, too. 

In the early 90s, I created the Hemisphere label for EMI. I put out a compilation called Ethno Punk (pictured above), a mix of music that was refreshing at first: one part electric, thumping street attitude, one part local tradition. When the Pogues initially did it, it was fresh, when every country had dozens following the formula, less so. Some of it became known as mestizo. When I joined the annual expo WOMEX for the Seville editions, carbon copies blared from nearly every stage.

Under the blazing star of Bob Marley reggae was everywhere, but outside of Jamaica, I preferred the original Senegalese reggae of Touré Kunda far more than Gilberto Gil’s me-too phase. While hip-hop is a profound international music of protest, it arose from a specific culture: urban, African-American streets. Some, like South Africa’s Blk Jks fused hip-hop with music of their own making. But too many suppressed their own cultures. What they did felt obligatory, unimaginative, rote.

And now fusion is king. Where once we were nourished by all that was the unique, increasingly the rules of the pop game are taking over, a certain unimaginative, safe predictability. This isn’t to say fusion or cross-cultural exchange is a bad thing. Look at the wonder Manu Chao created with Clandestino. All music is the result of where it came from and what it was exposed to. But when music is art, it adapts, absorbs, transforms.

Gustav Mahler once said, “tradition is not to preserve the ashes but to pass on the fire.” Pass it like a torch in a relay race. Create fusions and mash-ups, steal, borrow, appropriate. But prize what is unique in your culture, celebrate what comes from the dirt and grit and fertility of your own cultural soil. Throw out planned itineraries. Seek what you don’t know. Follow your own muse. Make it yours.   

This feature originally appeared in the April 2022 issue of Songlines magazine. Never miss an issue – subscribe today

Gerald Seligman has worked in music for over 40 years. He founded EMI’s Hemisphere label, was general director of WOMEX, consulted for UNESCO and the European Commission, and is currently executive director of the National Recording Preservation Foundation


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