Are We the World?
April 19, 2006
Zimbabwe’s Thomas Mapfumo played the Congo Square Stage at Jazz Fest in 1991, and in the days leading up to the festival, I was pretty excited by this. I had two Mapfumo albums, which I liked, and I gathered from what I had read about them that they were fiercely political. Because of the language difference, I didn’t understand the political dimension, but I approached Mapfumo’s show with a degree of seriousness I now find embarrassing. I thought live, somehow, I would “get it.” That didn’t happen, though. I didn’t experience any breakthroughs, and instead became irritated by festgoers who danced as if this was just any music, as if the songs were about cars and girls or something like that. The band seemed to be little more than a rhythm generator to them.
In retrospect, I was too hard on the people around me. Why would they get the political component? I didn’t get it without the aid of outside reading, so why should people encountering the music for the first time at a festival be more insightful?
This reminiscence is prompted by Estudando O Pagode, the new album from Brazilian Tom Zé. I’m fascinated by the album, with its mix of Brazilian rhythms, pop, rock and native musical traditions, and the interplay of the voices, which are melodic, then dissonant, earnest, then ironic. It is, however, sung in Portuguese, so I engage the album on a purely musical basis. I can tell from the songs’ construction that something subversive is happening. The snippet of “Ave Maria” is a tip-off, as are the chattering, mechanically altered voices.
I only know about the lyrical content of the CD because his label sent an accompanying promo booklet designed to look like Cliff’s Notes. It explains that the CD is “an unfinished operetta” that looks at how men have mistreated women throughout time. From experience with Zé, who has remained more of an avant-garde figure than contemporaries Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil, I know enough to be suspicious of the claim that the album is an unfinished operetta, but I wouldn’t know anything about its sexual politics without the notes.
That awareness makes me wonder about my own engagement with world music. If I don’t really know what it’s about, am I a musical tourist, missing central elements of the music as I hang on to the parts I understand? Am I the musical equivalent of the tourists who visited the French Quarter then ate at Shoney’s (when there was still one in the Quarter)? Perhaps that’s the reason I enjoy Putumayo’s “Lounge” series – Brazilian Lounge and Turkish Groove being the two most recent entries. The lyrics may be in Portuguese and Turkish, but the dance floor-friendly or trip-hop production marks the music as an intersection where native and western musical values and concepts are intersecting. I feel as if I’m on fairly sound critical ground there. When I hear traditional music from another culture, I have the bad feeling that I’m doing the equivalent of listening to “We Shall Overcome” and valuing it for its pretty melody.
Then again, is missing the point that unusual? I suspect there are Republicans in Texas who either don’t get or don’t notice the anti-Bush sentiment of James McMurtry’s “Can’t Make It Here Anymore.” They just like the way it rocks. And how many white folks loved Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” without realizing they’re a part of the power Chuck D said needed to be fought? They responded – rightly – to the power of a compelling hook, and when it comes to power, we identify with the powerless.
There’s also a great tradition of misheard lyrics. I still hear Van Morrison sings, “Hey there Westwego” in “Brown Eyed Girl.” Is that so different from having no idea what Natacha Atlas sings on her new album Mish Maoul or what Dragana Berakovic is saying on Kal’s new, self-titled debut album? I know I’m as drawn to the Middle Eastern melodies on Atlas’ album and the gypsy electronica of Kal as I am to anything else right now because they simply sounds fresher than most of the CDs that cross my desk. I also appreciate how such CDs reflect our times. In a global marketplace, music that reflects the crossing of cultures seems appropriate, and the accompanying sense of bewilderment is a side effect to be expected.
All this reflection on the cultural politics of listening to world music makes me think of David Byrne and Brian Eno and My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, which they recorded in 1979 and 1980. The album was recently reissued by Nonesuch Records, complete with additional track, and on it, Byrne and Eno treated all cultures as subject matter by grabbing “found” vocals from preachers, talk radio hosts, Muslim chanters and Egyptian pop singers and removing their native contexts and, by extension, the meaning associated with those contexts. They then laid them over their white, art school-influenced take on African pop, creating something new. You can argue that the results don’t generate the sort of cross-cultural frisson it seems like it should, and I don’t think Byrne would disagree with you. Judging from the liner notes, it sounds like he was only trying to make his version of African dance music. The lessons he learned here he applied to making Remain in Light.
It’s tempting to try to hear some relationship between Rev. Paul Morton’s preaching on “Help Me Somebody” and the chicken scratch guitar, the descending bass line and the relentless congas, but it’s not there. Nor is there any clear relationship between the words and backing tracks on the other pieces; they’re all just sound. Carefully arranged, carefully textured sound, but sound nonetheless, just as “Louie, Louie” is. The FBI dubbed that song “unintelligible at any speed,” and we enjoy it as sound, particularly when we lurch around drunkenly.
It seems fundamentally wrong to not engage political or socially active art without engaging its ideas, or to examine a cultural product without considering the culture it emerged from. But, we do it every day. I’m not sure if this knowledge brings relief because it rationalizes my pawing, self-taught attempts to find a relationship to world music, or if this is depressing because it means we consume art with the focus and understanding of an ADD-afflicted child in a video arcade.
Still, as much as people like songs with words that they can sing along to, our degree of attachment to songs by mumblers such as Jagger and Van Morrison, and indie quiet types including Cat Power’s Chan Marshall and Pavement’s Stephen Malkmus says we respond to a lot more than the words. Writers may write about the words, and radio programmers may stress the importance of words. The secret many singers know is that the words are just the way they deliver a sonic contribution to songs. Often early demo tapes feature the arrangement with the singer mumbling nonsense syllables to articulate the song’s melody. The words, in many cases, are just afterthoughts. The way music – organized sound – speaks to us is far more subtle and complex than we realize, and it holds true whether it’s made by New Orleanians who want to start a disturbance in your mind, or gypsy punks, Middle Eastern divas or Brazilian avant-garde figures who think the world has given women a raw deal.