Reflections on World Music

Let’s face it, World Music is a dubious category that can have an annoying/patronizing side: oh, those festive native costumes and delicious exotic polyrhythms.  At its worst, World Music can be dull global pop that would seem completely middle-of-the-road minus the foreign language/accent and colorful outfits.  Our town has this annual Fall world music festival that includes the potentially irritating sight of swarms of aging white Midwestern yuppies/new-agey types dancing badly to imported exotics playing African drums.

And yet…. in fact and notwithstanding the built-in ironies and problems, I love the Lotus Festival.  You pay your $33 and get to wander in and out of eight different venues all within a few blocks of one another (churches, night clubs, tents); we usually end up catching 6 or 7 acts in the four hours or so.  It almost always seems to be a gorgeous evening and the music tends to be about 50% interesting and worth checking out, 25% a bit disappointing, and 25% completely great.  The problem with the cynical take on World Music is that it kind of presumes as a norm the extreme homogeneity of pop music.  So in fact, what from one perspective can seem like exoticizing can also be understood just as a different take on modern popular music that does not give priority to the one tiny slice of traditions that we normally experience (e.g. the Western rock/pop mode).  My fond memories of Lotus festivals in the past include some truly amazing and unexpected music like the “Tuvan throat singing punk rock” of Yat-Kha, who did a Black Sabbath cover; the Gangbe Brass Band from Benin — it seems there’s been more than one really awesome brass band over the years; the Boban Markovic Orchestra from Serbia; the Peruvian chanteuse Susana Baca; the Be Good Tanyas.

So, this year these were my favorites:

Etran Finatawa from Niger, who combine “Wodaabe chants,” “a blend of choral polyphony and high tenor solos,” with a kind of blues-derived electric guitar drone.  It’s a lot like the great Tinariwen (not quite as great: if you want to try one semi-recent World Music album, check out their Aman Iman).  They wear “traditional long embroidered tunics, leather hose and turbans with ostrich feathers” and “adorn their faces with yellow spots and stripes,” so yes, the scene in the tent with the 95% white audience could be seen as having a diversity sideshow aspect, but the music was mesmerizing, the costumes looked great against the dimming blue sky behind the stage, and why should musicians have to wear jeans?  (I did imagine to myself these guys before the show saying, “Time to get folkloric, guys, where’d you put the can of yellow paint?”)

Pistolera, three women with tattoos and one guy, they seemed very Austin but I guess are from Brooklyn, sort of a fusion of trad Mexican ranchera music (with accordian) with a kind of indie rock sensibility.  They did a cover of Bob Marley’s “War” (“Guerra”).  Lots of fun.

Reelroad, “Russian post-folk.”  This was our fave actually, maybe partly because seeing them in a little club (rather than one of the big outdoor tents) felt more intimate.  They play “folk songs from northern and central Russia and Siberia” with a kind of punkish approach and style.  Eight people on the stage at times, four men and four women, the women cute, the men all slightly grouchy-seeming with some significant facial hair, they obviously were having a blast and reminded me a bit of a Siberian Pogues.  Towards the end these frat boys and sorority gals starting coming in the club for (it became clear) a dance party scheduled after Reelroad.  The girls were all wearing variations of the same Britney Spears skimpy dress; our friend Leah remarked “I think those boys are gonna get lucky tonight.”  They were sort of milling around, shouting and dancing in front in what I assumed was an ironic or mocking way, the girls teetering on their heels, although we got the feeling that some of them couldn’t help but actually get into it.  The dudes had a slight edge of menace to them, you felt that it wouldn’t take much to provoke them to knock some tables over or something.

Caught a few other bands too.  I was disappointed by Marta Gomez who I guess I’d hoped would be like Susan Baca or something but was, for my liking, too tasteful and soft-jazz in approach.  The setting of the big bland convention hall probably did not benefit her.  Vieux Farka Toure, son of the great Ali Farka, was pretty good but had a slightly wanky guitar-blues element.

The next day Sarah took the girls to the afternoon free concert in the park, but I was busy at my all-day departmental retreat in a big convention room lined, like Kurtz’s cabin, with human skulls (replicas I think; it’s an archaeology institute).

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