Saturday, July 18, 2009

BOOK REVIEW: THE NO-NONSENSE GUIDE TO WORLD MUSIC - Louise Gray (ISBN: 978-1-906523-12-1) £7.99

World Music is such an amorphous concept that pretty much any writer could take a subjective snapshot of what it means today and present that as the ‘essential’ or ‘definitive’ guide to the genre and the title of this slim volume could mislead us into thinking that the author has indeed attempted just that kind of approach. Instead, this book is not so much a guide or a work of reference as a series of short essays wherein New Internationalist magazine’s music correspondent takes a thematic approach to “locat[ing] several manifestations of world music within a larger context” (as she puts it), with in-depth chapters on European genres rembetika and fado, and music as political catalyst, before tackling (perceived) authenticity in music and asking whether (and how) the outsider – ie the world music consumer - can engage with music that is essentially community-based. There’s a brief run-down of the oft-recounted early history of the term “world music”, but other than that no real attempt to map out a chronology of events or sketch out biographies of the major artists involved. Nor indeed are there descriptions or playlists of landmark albums or songs (although there is a decent, if far from comprehensive, discography and list of DVDs and books at the end). Mention of artists is dependent on their relevance to the essay in hand; contrasting examples of this - Pakistani Sufi great Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan gets mentioned as part of the essay on Sufism, gnawa and trance music, but the former Zaire’s superstar guitarist and bandleader Franco isn’t anywhere to be seen. No surprise that, when you consider that African music is addressed mainly in contemporary geopolitical terms, through the mention of bands such as Tinariwen (who are described a few times as ‘proto-blues’, with no real explanation as to what that term might actually mean). In the section on music as political motivator, the author drifts off the whole idea of music’s engagement with the rest of the world (surely the whole point of “world music”, if indeed it has one) by focusing on the controversial role (and subsequent conviction) of singer-songwriter Simon Bikindi in encouraging the slaughter of Tutsis by Hutus in Rwanda. It’s a powerful topic, and one worthy of debate, and it’s one that Gray addresses with characteristic care and admirable balance. But Bikindi’s impact on World Music was negligible, and it might have been more relevant to open out the earlier reference to fado’s (perceived) relationship to past Portuguese regimes (given its recent cross-over into the World Music market) and/or developing the intriguing section on Middle Eastern music and the effect of artists, such as Idan Raichel, that are familiar outside of the region. Or indeed focus on any number of South American or African artists – from Algeria to Zimbabwe – whose broader exposure brings into question our attitudes to the socio-political milieu from which they evolved (Tibet/China is touched upon and merits further investigation by the writer at a later juncture). That gripe apart, it is refreshing to see these subjects tackled without fear of crossing established de facto boundaries, and Gray is to be applauded for the way she draws on disparate viewpoints (from the anti-tree-hugger cynicism of the Magnetic Fields to Laibach’s subversion of East European nationalism) and includes Lomax-era investigation of American roots music as a template for the rights and wrongs of celebrating ‘authenticity’. It all makes for an engaging and thought-provoking read, leaving a trail of thoughts, questions, ideas and debates in the reader’s mind about what motivates our desire for new sounds from outside our social sphere, despite not giving any real sense of which of those sounds are worthy of further investigation.

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