Sunday, November 26, 2017

Apparently World I

"The Universal Language"

[This is one post in a series about my music mixes.  The series list has links to all posts in the series and also definitions of many of the terms I use.  You may wish to read the introduction for more background.

Like all my series, it is not necessarily contiguous—that is, I don’t guarantee that the next post in the series will be next week.  Just that I will eventually finish it, someday.  Unless I get hit by a bus.]

When I first wrote about Numeric Driftwood, I talked about making mixes for my children.  That post contains this paragraph:

My middle child was never much into music.  I toyed with one idea for a mix for him for quite a while, though it too remains unfinished.  Then along came LittleBigPlanet, and consequently the Paradoxically Sized World mix, and that became his music of choice.

The idea I was toying with was based on a birthday trip we did for him at Sea World.  It was an “eat lunch with Shamu” type of thing that we’d paid extra for as a birthday treat.1  The food was average at best, but for whatever reason my son really seemed to get into the music, which was a mostly-instrumental, more-or-less upbeat take on worldmusic.

Now, “worldmusic” is itself a somewhat controversial term, and it means different things to different people.  It has similar issues to “alternative” or “post-<fill-in-genre-here>” in that it’s a bit overarching: isn’t all music found in the world?  But it clearly refers to “non-Western” music ... except now we have to decide what “non-Western” means.  When I was in school, it meant African, or Asian (except for Russia), or Pacific Islander (except for Australian).  But it’s a pretty flexible definition.  Is Romani culture non-Western?  How about Latin American or Caribbean?  What about Eastern European, particularly the Baltics?  For that matter, what about indigenous peoples?  American and Australian are clearly Western, but Native American or Aboriginal Australian?  Not so much.

To make it more confusing, many people (and I’m one of them) make a distinction between worldmusic and its cultural source.  That is, if you believe in this distinction, then when Frankie Yankovic plays polka, that’s not worldmusic; but, when Gary Sredzienski plays polka, it is.  That’s because Yankovic2 plays “traditional” polka, in a way that would sound very familiar to people who grew up in one of the Baltic states.  But Sredzienski plays a modern version of polka, which is generally either decidedly non-polka songs redone as polka (e.g. “Green Onions”), or classic polka tunes redone with a modern flair (e.g. “Hava Nagilah”).  And that is the essence of what makes worldmusic, to me: it’s a fusion of Western and non-Western.  It’s most often done, I think, by musicians who have grown up in Western countries but whose ancestors (often very recent ancestors) hail from non-Western cultures.  But sometimes it stems from non-Western musicians becoming enamored of Western music, or just from Western musicians and non-Western musicians coming together and forming unexpected musical styles.

In this volume, we’ll explore a lot of worldmusic, some electronica and dreampop that’s merely worldmusic-adjacent, and maybe even hit a few surprises along the way.  Although I originally thought this would be a mix that might appeal to my middle child, he hasn’t in fact shown that much interest in it, so I’m sort of adopting it into my stable of mixes.  However, the name, as usual for one of my children’s mixes, still has his name stuck in there somewhere, so that helps explain the odd choice.

We open with “Jaan Pehechaan Ho,” which is well known to Bollywood fans as the first big dance number of Gumnaam, a 1965 box office smash in India which was ostensibly a Bollywood version of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, although of course Bollywood movies tend to defy being pigeonholed into a single genre.  For Western audiences, it’s probably better known as the opening of Ghost World in 2001 (the first time many of us saw Scarlett Johansson on screen), or an immensely successful Heineken commercial in 2011.  It continues to show up in various unlikely places because it is an insanely catchy tune, even for a Bollywood movie.  I didn’t appreciate it when I first heard it in 2001, but perhaps my musical tastes had matured by the time it popped up again ten years later, because I suddenly began to find it irresistible.  It was an early choice for this mix, and I think it makes the perfect opener.

In the category of expats or children of immigrants harkening back to their roots, we have Stellamara, a California duo with roots in Serbia, Hungary, and Turkey.  We’ve seen them before,3 but always in the context of their more reflective modes.  “Baraka” is a bit more upbeat, but still with the strong Balkan roots we’ve come to expect from this Magnatune artist.4  Then there’s Asian Dub Foundation, a group of Brits of mostly Indian descent, who sing rap-infused Jamaican-inspired ragga, with some Indian influence.  While I’m not a huge fan of their music in general, I always found “Real Great Britain” quite hooky: it plants itself in your brain and doesn’t particularly want to let go.  I’m also going to throw Shiva in Exile in here, primarily because I feel certain I read somewhere that Stefan Hertrich had some Indian ancestry, although I can’t confirm that now, so perhaps I dreamed it.  The German electronica artist certainly shows a lot of Indian influence in Shiva in Exile, though, with a somewhat darker tone that is sometimes referred to as “ethnogothic.”  We’ve heard from this band before, also on Shadowfall Equinox I,5 and likewise my selection here (“Odysseia”) is a more upbeat tune from them, although in this case it tends a bit more bombastic.  It’s got a great, swelling sense of drama that makes for an excellent penultimate track.

On the other side of the street we have non-Western musicians adopting some Western styles, and chief among them is the insanity that is Psio Crew.  You won’t find anything about them if you look on Wikipedia ... unless you go to the Polish version, where an article (helpfully run through Google Translate in case you don’t speak Polish, as I don’t) tells us that they hail from Bielsko-Biała (a fairly large6 industrial city in southern Poland), and their music combines elements of rap, trip-hop, and ragga with traditional Balkan melodies.  This is another band that I can’t say I dig all their tunes, but “Hajduk” is really catchy, and makes you want to sing along with it even though you have no clue what the words are saying.  And then we have the mad genius of Kutiman, who we first met back on Smokelit Flashback IV.  If you recall, he’s the Israeli auteur who scours the Internet for interesting bits of other people’s YouTube videos, usually featuring a single instrument or a small group of them (such as a horn section or a string quartet), then stitches them together, Frankenstein-style, to produce entirely new compositions.  At some point, the tourism bureaus of cities started asking him to do this featuring videos which showcase the music of that particular city.7  He’s done several of these at this point, but the one he did for Krakow, Poland is hands down the best, in my view.  It ranges all over the musical map, weaving together klezmer, jazz, pop, and even opera, but all with a distinctive Balkan style.  And somehow Kutiman makes it all gel (which is his particular brand of brilliance).

And then you have the one-person poster children for multi-cultural groups.  One of my favorite examples of this is Lou Bega, as I discussed back on Salsatic Vibrato IV.  In a footnote there, I mentioned my other favorite: Azam Ali, who was born in Iran, raised in India, educated in California, and now lives in Canada.  Even better, Ali has 3 faces: as part of Vas, with college friend Greg Ellis, she sings eclectic worldmusic, with strong Indian and Middle Eastern flavors, in a variety of languages; as part of Niyaz, with her husband Loga Ramin Torkian,8 she sings more traditional fare, but still with some electronica and trip-hop infusions, mainly in Persian; and as herself, she sings Middle-Eastern-inflected dreampop, in English.  We showcase two of the three here:  Vas gives us “Izgrejala,” with Ali singing in a combination of Turkish and Bulgarian (if the Internet is to be believed), harmonizing with herself in double-tracked ululations which are both haunting and beautiful.  Then from Ali’s solo album Elysium for the Brave we have “Endless Reverie,” an almost gothic piece of slinky dreampop that also showcases her amazing vocal talent.  Ali is yet another artist whose work doesn’t always appeal to me, but when she’s on, she’s on, and these are two of her best.

Then we hit the unlikely combo groups.  Skyedance I’ve talked about before,9 with their Scottish fiddler, Canadian flautist, jazz bassist, Medieval/Renaissance percussionist, and bagpipe player.  I finally have a chance to showcase one of their more upbeat tunes here, and I think “Way Out to Hope Street” (the title track from their first album) is a fantastic example of what makes them great.  It’s primarily a Scottish reel, but the bass, percussion, and keyboards give it something extra.  Then there’s Outback, founded by Cornish guitarist/mandolinist Martin Cradick and American-born half-Australian didgeridoo player Graham Wiggins, but also featuring French violinist Paddy Le Mercier and Senegalese percussionist Sagar N’Gom.  The buzzing of the didgeridoo (similar to the buzzing of the bagpipes, actually) provides an interesting backdrop for this jazzy, mildly Middle Eastern selection, “Aziz Aziz.”

Of course, there were also some obvious choices.  Thievery Corporation’s mainly Caribbean-focussed electro-world10 branches out to a slightly Middle Eastern vibe for ”(The Forgotten People),” while Transglobal Underground’s dancier, rap-and-sample-based electro-world really hits its peak with “Temple Head,” which also gives us our volume title.  (What is the universal language?  Why, music, of course.)  Both were no-brainers.  As was TranceVision, primarily purveyors of downtempo and trip-hop, but with a decidedly worldmusic bent.  I was introduced to their CD by the same workmate who turned me on to Skyedance and Transglobal Underground, and, while much of it is too mellow for inclusion here, “Nebula” is just upbeat enough to slot perfectly between Asian Dub Foundation and Azam Ali.  And what would a worldmusic compilation be without a contribution from Dead Can Dance?  After all, DCD vocalist Lisa Gerrard sings in something like a dozen different languages, and occasionally invents her own.  “Radharc,” from their best album Aion,11 is slightly medieval, slightly Middle Eastern, and just upbeat enough to work well here.

Apparently World I
    [The Universal Language]

        “Jaan Pehechaan Ho” by Mohammed Rafi [Single]
        “Palm Village” by Monster Rally, off Return to Paradise
        “(The Forgotten People)” by Thievery Corporation, off Radio Retaliation
        “Mix Krakow” by Kutiman, off Mix the City [Compilation]
        “Way Out to Hope Street” by Skyedance, off Way Out to Hope Street
        “Real Great Britain” by Asian Dub Foundation, off Community Music
        “Nebula” by TranceVision, off Lemuria
        “Endless Reverie” by Azam Ali, off Elysium for the Brave
        “Radharc” by Dead Can Dance, off Aion
        “Marco Polo” by Loreena McKennitt, off The Book of Secrets
        “Baraka” by Stellamara, off The Seven Valleys
        “Izgrejala” by Vas, off Feast of Silence
        “Hajduk” by Psio Crew [Single]
        “Temple Head” by Transglobal Underground, off International Times
        “Aziz Aziz” by Outback, off Dance the Devil Away
        “The Wayward Camel” by The Karminsky Experience Inc., off The Power of Suggestion
        “Odysseia” by Shiva In Exile, off Ethnic
        “Forgotten Worlds” by Delerium, off Karma
Total:  18 tracks,  77:19

Our less obvious candidates are not really that less obvious.  Monster Rally is a one-man band from Cleveland which focusses on exotica-infused trip-hop and downtempo.  Not all of his tunes have a worldmusic vibe, but many do, and “Palm Village” is a great, dreamy track which is just barely upbeat enough to make the cut here.12  Likewise, British trip-hop DJ duo the Karminsky Experience only dabbles in world occasionally, such as in their Arabic-inspired “The Wayward Camel.”  I’m not sure it really counts as worldmusic, but I thought it fit nicely here, bridging the musical gap between Outback and Shiva in Exile.

The centerpiece of the volume is Loreena McKennit’s instrumental piece “Marco Polo,” from her Book of Secrets album, which I would say is her best.  It too has a bit of Middle Eastern flavor, thanks mainly to the use of the oud, but also a bit of a medieval feel, no doubt thanks to the use of the shawm.  The combination is the perfect musical expression of the title.

And that just leaves us with Delerium’s “Forgotten Worlds,” which is also the volume closer.  We met Delerium back on Shadowfall Equinox III, where we explored their darker side.  Here, though, we showcase their penchant for worldmusic-inflected downtempo.  “Forgotten Worlds” is ostensibly too slow for this mix, and probably too long to boot, but it’s such a gorgeous tune, fronted by extended sampling of more of Lisa Gerrard’s powerful vocals—these are from “Persian Love Song,” and they’re featured so prominently you could almost consider “Forgotten Worlds” a remix of that song.  Of course, since “Persian Love Song” is a capella, this version is completely different, and quite enchanting.  I said that “Morpheus” is probably Delerium’s best work, and I don’t retract that, but “Forgotten Worlds” sure gives it a run for its money.

According to my research and best guesses, this mix has featured vocals in Hindi, English, Hebrew, Irish, Turkish, Bulgarian, Polish, Russian, and Persian, as well as quite a few wordless vocalizations that transcend language altogether.  I haven’t tried to do any sort of comprehensive overview of the many cultures covered by the very inclusive (some would say “overly inclusive”) worldmusic label, and I’ve been willing to stray from even my fairly broad definition to chase things that just caught my ear in an “ethnic” manner, but I still think that this mix could be a good jumping-off point for anyone who is firmly rooted in popular Western music but wants to dabble their toes in more worldly waters.  Hopefully you thought so too.

Next time, we’ll see what happens when you turn a song inside-out.


1 This was, obviously, before Blackfish.  If I had known about that film, I probably would have been too terrified to take my kid to see an orca performance.  But let’s not get distracted from the point of the story.

2 No relation to Weird Al, by the way.

3 Specifically on Shadowfall Equinox, volumes I, III, and IV.

4 I told the story of how I discovered Magnatune in Rose-Coloured Brainpan.

5 And they’re also a Magnatune artist, coincidentally.

6 For comparison purposes for Americans, it’s about the size of Sioux Falls, which is the largest city in South Dakota.

7 I believe the original one in this series was Tel Aviv, which makes sense in that it’s located in Kutiman’s native land.

8 Fun side note: also involved in Niyaz is Carmen Rizzo, who we’ve already seen once (on Smokelit Flashback IV) and will be seeing much more of in the future.

9 Back on Numeric Driftwood I, where I showcased one of their slower tunes.

10 We first met Thievery Corporation on Smokelit Flashback III, but also encountered them on Paradoxically Sized World IV and Zephyrous Aquamarine I.

11 I originally raved about Aion back on Smokelit Flashback II.

12 Side note: I first heard Monster Rally when my cable provider’s “Zen” channel played “Panther.”  That channel has provided a surprising number of useful music discoveries.

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