How the French Killed World Music and Made it Safe to Listen to the Radio Again
by Ed Ward
It would be a wonderful thing to kill off the term “world music.” It’s hard to tell whether the moment is upon us, but it’s time to start thinking.
IT’S A MUCH-TOLD TALE: the meeting, a little over 20 years ago, in a London pub’s upstairs room, of some producers and record-label owners who were trying to get some retail visibility for the music they were trying to sell, music from foreign countries. There was Joe Boyd of Hannibal, Jumbo van Rijnen of Earthworks, Ben Mandelson of GlobeStyle, and a few others.
The bulk of what they released was popular music in the land of its origin: van Rijnen, for instance, was a South African exile who’d done a lot to promote township jive, the incredibly ebullient, sometimes politically volatile music epitomized by the Soul Brothers, the band Paul Simon had played with on his Graceland album. Mandelson had a wide variety of interests, had played in an African band and the utterly unclassifiable 3 Mustphas 3, and recorded some of the albums he released himself, while licensing others. In the former category were two records of music from Madagascar; in the latter, a heavily electronic album by Israeli pop diva Ofra Haza singing traditional music from her Yemenite Jewish heritage. (In an even more bizarre connection, this would be sampled by Eric B and Rakim on “Paid in Full,” an early hip-hop smash.) Boyd, an American, had come from British rock and folk music, and was producing records by the Hungarian traditionalists Musikas, among others.
They needed a gimmick: in the record stores which would even carry this stuff, it was being shoved off into the bins where the ethnic folklore albums lived, Hunting Chants of the Irturi and the like, not the kind of place someone whose ears had been opened up by Paul Simon was likely to go looking. These people needed something simple: a name they could call their stuff, a marketing term adventurous pop fans could remember when they sought out new sounds. And thus, “world music” was born.
The campaign was successful. Boy, was it successful. In short order, “world music” became one of the two great misnomers in hip musical circles. The other one, of course, was “African music.” Thanks to Bob Marley’s death, Island Records had a vacancy for a new worldwide star, and in trying to fill it with King Sunny Ade, a Nigerian whose large band played infectiously rhythmic religious music with steel guitars prominent in the mix, they set up a situation where, to most of the Americans who were drawn to King Sunny, world music equalled African music. In England, where people lived among actual Nigerians and South Africans, there was a distinction made, but in America, Africa was, like, a country. And it didn’t help Americans make the disinction when they noticed that, although the Soul Brothers and Sunny Ade’s band couldn’t understand each others’ lyrics, they could easily talk to each other, in English.And it was just those lyrics which prevented any of this music (which also included South Africans like Mahlatini and the Mahotella Queens and Nigerians like Prince Nico Mbarga) from making a headway in the United States: American radio is allergic to lyrics not in English (and, these days, Spanish). Even supposedly progressive FM radio wouldn’t touch world music. No more potent example of this exists than the gigantic hit “7 Seconds,” by Youssou N’Dour and Neneh Cherry from 1994. For those of us in Europe, the song was utterly inescapable, its hooky chorus stuck in our skulls for an entire year. It got to number 3 in Britain, Germany, and Sweden, number 8 overall in Europe, and number one in France. In America, where Sony, which had issued the album from which it was taken in Europe, had passed on releasing it, a single was eventually released, reaching 98 on the Billboard Hot 100.
Outside of the United States, “world music,” whatever that means these days, has continued to flourish. The Senegalese unleashed a torrent of musical talent (including Youssou N’Dour), and the Malians even more so. Northern Africa, Algeria in particular, exported a fiendishly catchy genre called rai as its exponents were hounded out of the country by fundamentalists. A French guy named Francis Falçeto became obsessed with the suppressed pop music of Ethiopia and, at great risk, collected a huge amount of it and pressed it up. Madagascar had a seemingly endless supply of guys who had re-invented guitar playing. And that was just Africa: in Brazil, where it seemed samba and bossa nova ruled, someone discovered the jaunty accordion-led forró, “music for maids and taxi-drivers,” as one album-title called it. In the Caribbean, a young man named Andy Palacio reinvigorated the traditions of his Garifuna people in Belize with great success. Finland, Sweden, and Norway saw a surge in folk music and folk-rock music among young people. And once bhangra, an outlaw style sociologically reminiscent of reggae, caught on among Indian youngsters in London, it was just a matter of time until it, too, was welcomed into the fold.Back home where these genres originated, the effect of the world music boom was complex. In some cases (ie, Senegal’s Orchestre Baobab, which hadn’t played together in years) it revived an old style and made a successful career outside of the home country possible. In other cases, it was a chance to further export a hit that was happening at home, much the way the U.S. and Britain exported rock hits (this happened in particular to rai). But in the U.S., world music was, and is, a small niche with occasional radio exposure on public radio or college stations.
In Europe, it’s a different matter. Which is not to say that ghettoization doesn’t occur: there is, most notably in Germany, an audience which treats a lot of foreign popular music, most particularly African popular music, as exotic, fetishizing the rhythm in particular: drum troupes and samba schools have nice paydays there, particularly if accompanied by dancers. Berlin has Radio MultiKulti, the world’s only 24-hour world music radio station, although it lives in constant danger of having its plug pulled.
But there’s another approach, and it flourishes in France. In large part, it’s an accident of history, but the results are, I think, exportable, although to be perfectly honest I’m not quite sure how. France was musically lucky in its choice of colonies, particularly in Africa. As noted, both Senegal and Mali developed major music industries for the Third World, as did the Ivory Coast. Another hotbed of pop music was the Maghrebi lands of northern Africa: Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco. What all of the popular music coming from all these countries had in common was that the vocabulary was traditional, based in what could be called “folk” musical forms, but the presentation was – or wanted to be – cosmopolitan.
The big influence on Francophone sub-Saharan Africa, though, was the former Belgian Congo. Who knows why, but starting in the late 1950s, rhumba music, initially played on acoustic guitars with hand percussion (often including beer bottles struck with pencils), became the rage in Kinshasa. As the new nation of Zaïre rose, so did its music, with electricity coming in along with local rhythms. Stars like Franco and TP OK Jazz, and Tabu Ley Rochereau and l’Orchestre Africa Fiesta competed for supremacy, and birthed what became known as the Style Internationale. This was marked not only by those irresistable rhythms, but two or three lead guitars intertwining melodic lines in a dizzying fashion. Even if your country had its own thing going, as Senegal, Mali, Ghana, and Nigeria certainly did, your band had better have some Style Internationale in its book if it wanted to work. Over in eastern Africa, Kenya’s Orchestra Super Mazembe seamlessly layered Zaïrian ideas onto local styles and became superstars.
As political turmoil and economic pressures started to fuel immigration, a lot of people – musicians among them – found themselves headed to Brussels and Paris, where the musicians discovered a technological paradise: if you had the money, you could get better guitars, amps, horns and drums than you’d ever had, and record in a studio that was light years from anything you’d ever experienced. Furthermore, there were French studio musicians with knowledge of synthesizers and keyboards who were willing to listen to your ideas and put them into practice. The moment crystallized in 1982, when Salif Keita, an albino member of Malian royalty who had become a singer, collaborated with keyboardist Jean-Philippe Rykiel and producer Ibrahim Sylla and came out with Soro, which became a European best-seller, and a template of a new way for African musicians to present their music.
It was at exactly this time – 1981, to be exact – that French culture minister Jack Lang appealed to French radio to adopt a voluntary quota system, in which 40% of the music aired on French stations would be French in origin. It was modelled after the highly successful Canadian quota system, CanCon (Canadian content), which was liberal enough to include Canadian-born artists (including U.S. residents like Joni Mitchell and Neil Young) and recordings produced in Canada (including Arizonan Alice Cooper’s breakthrough album, Love It To Death, produced by Canadian Bill Ezrin at his Canadian studio). The implications for acts such as the ones Ibrahim Sylla was producing were obvious, and many of the Zaïrian acts were already mixing French in their Lingala lyrics.Before long, the French music scene was a riot of musical colors, as Algerian rai, Haitian zouk and merengue from the French Antilles joined the Africans. Singers who’d been stars in Africa, particularly creative types like Youssou N’Dour, Salif Keita, Ismaël Lô, Oumou Sangaré, Baaba Maal, and Angelique Kidjo found Paris a place where they were free of expectations and constrictions bound by their native countries’ music industries and able to extend their personal artistic visions, aided by talented producers and musicians. Their records not only got played on the radio in France, but sold worldwide – even, to a limited extent, in the United States, where many of them also toured. Hip-hop also invaded the scene, resulting in some particularly commercial fusions, including a hugely vital Maghrebi hip-hop scene centered in Marseille and Paris’ Bisso Na Bisso (Lingala for “between us”), a collective of Congolese rappers and singers whose influence seems to have outlived the band.
These days, if you say “world music” to a French music fan, you’re likely to get pointed to some hippie playing a digideroo or maybe an import like the Afro-Celt Sound System. Mention an act that’s enjoying a lot of success in the world music market outside of France, like the blind Malian husband-and-wife team of Amadou and Mariam, and your fan will act puzzled. That’s pop music! After all, their success came, after an African-produced album, when Manu Chao produced an album with them. Manu Chao is a former member of Mano Negra, an ‘80s rock band who, like Talking Heads in America, got more and more into exotic rhythms as their career developed. Chao later emerged with a number of brilliantly-produced pan-European pop hits, and his production of Amadou and Mariam was just another part of his career, as it was of theirs. And of course they have hits: they’re really good!
The thing is, the world is increasingly like this – remember Youssou and Nena’s chart position in Sweden, after all – except in the United States. It would be a wonderful thing, I think, to kill off the term “world music.” Not only would the musical diet be more varied and healthier, but I suspect that a certain amount of knowledge about the countries of origin would automatically cling to the melodies and rhythms. “Africa” would turn into countries, and the countries would be filled with people. Our next-door neighbors in the Caribbean, in South America, and the folks on the Indian subcontinent would seem less exotic and more human. We could forget about trying to identify with the lyrics, or even understanding them, and start enjoying the groove more. We could start thinking of it as just music, without a descriptive adjective in front of it. Hell, we’ve adopted Mexican, Thai, Italian, Japanese, and other cuisines into our daily life; why should foreign music be an exception in a country that prides itself as a melting pot? It’s hard to tell whether the moment to do this is upon us, or is yet to come, but it’s past time to start thinking about it. Our ears would be healthier for it.
Ed Ward is a music journalist based in France. HOME