I have a hard time with the label “world music.”
What does that even mean? Music in other languages? Bollywood soundtracks? K-pop chart hitters? Traditional, native, contemporary, classical, religious… indie? Are English lyrics allowed? Are western instruments allowed?
Yes. To everything. To some degree. Many of us have an idea of what world music sounds like. You know what I mean. Those “world” French-jazz fusion songs that are sleepy and gentle and pretend to be sophisticated, like you should be sipping an overpriced latte and reading in public while it plays in the background or something. That’s elevator music. But how can world music be just this one thing when it’s representative of, you know, the WORLD? To me, there’s so much more than that. The scope is wide, in fact, the world is my limit, and what can be more exciting than having the whole world to listen to?
World music is really just that: music from around the world. And like any other songs that you would hear in English, there are good ones and there are bad ones. Okay, there are a lot of bad ones, but taste is subjective, so how can you tell if something is good or not? You probably don’t understand the lyrics, or why it sounds the way it does. What makes any of these songs special?
In my journey to create a world music catalogue for KNOM I’ve developed my own taste buds. The taste of the world that I like may not be the same flavor that you like, but as part of KNOM’s mission, I saw it as my job to create a mix that has something for everyone. My personal mission: a worldly mix that fits within the already established KNOM music library. (Q: Can I see myself playing this back-to-back with the newest from Munford & Sons or a Motown classic?)
I wanted songs that are accessible and challenging, soothing and neurotic, new and familiar, but above all, exciting songs with universal themes that break language barriers and stereotypes with colors and shapes and harmonies to boot.
This music catalogue is set to start playing (*cross fingers*) in regular rotation this summer, before my time at KNOM is up. It is my gift to you. Here’s a quick preview. Enjoy!
1. Ladysmith Black Mambazo– “Homeless”
You can’t talk about world music without Ladysmith Black Mambazo. Founded in the mid 60s, they have become one of the most prominent musical acts in their homeland of South Africa. When Paul Simon featured them in his classic 1986 “Graceland” album, the group gained huge exposure at an international level and in a way has become the birthmother of world music to the western world.
They’re more on the traditional side of what I’m listening to. Also, I love saying “…but you love Ladysmith Black Mambazo!” at random intervals, hoping someone knows what movie that’s from.
2. Calle 13– “Latinoamerica”
Their name translates to “13th Street”, the name of the street where the two stepbrothers grew up in Puerto Rico. Calle 13 is noted for its eclectic musical style, often using unconventional instrumentation in its music, so you can’t judge all their work based on this one track. This song is pure poetry but it’s okay if you can’t make out the lyrics! The video does a pretty good job translating. It won a Latin Grammy for Record of the Year, though I don’t put much weight on Grammys. If it’s good, it’s good, you know?
The beginning features a native Quechua DJ introducing the duo.
3. Gogol Bordello– “Wanderlust King”
Self described as “gypsy punk,” the band blends eastern-European sounds with punk and dub. They’re high energy, theatrical, a little weird and a lot of awesome. The group members are from all over the world, frontman Eugene Hutz being Ukranian of Romani decent. Oh, and they have killer lyrics.
My challenge? Finding radio-friendly Gogol songs to play.
4. Naugty Boy feat. Sam Smith – “La La La”
Okay, this one is a bit of a stretch. Let me explain. It’s from British producer Naughty Boy featuring vocals from Sam Smith. How can something in English, (British! With a name like Smith!) be considered “world”? Well, let’s put aside that this song charted almost everywhere you can imagine except the US, which means it has appeal elsewhere, and that the music video, shot across the Bolivian landscape, is one of the most watched YouTube videos of 2013.
When you listen to it, imagine you don’t speak English. What would most appeal to you? To me, it’s the chorus track. The child going “la la la” I’m not listening, completely drowning all other sound in the background. Sometimes the most universal sounds are the ones that can’t be defined with actual words.
5. Sigur Ros– “Hoppippola”
Which brings me to these guys. They’re from Iceland and they sing in a made up language called “Hopelandic.”
If you listen, it sounds like a language, but it has no fixed syntax, grammar, or actual constructed words meant for literal communication. It focuses entirely on the sound of the language and its melodic rhythms, kind of like in scat and vocal jazz.
Known for it’s ethereal sound and lead singer Jonsi Birgisson’s falsetto voice, Sigur Ros uses a lot of classical elements, going as far as playing guitar with a violin bow. Is this a universal language? You decide.
6. A Tribe Called Red– “Red Skin Girl” (Northern Cree Remix)
The first time I heard this I wasn’t sure how I felt about it. It was… a lot going on. What is it? Who made it? How does this exist without my knowledge?
A Tribe Called Red is a group of three aboriginal DJs based out of Ontario, Canada. They make electronic music and remix traditional powwow music, dubbed “powwow-step.”I have to admit: dub step is not normally my thing but I know of a part of our demographic (*cough, the young’ns, cough*) that loves this. With time, I began to love this, too.
I would not feel comfortable with this music if it was an example of cultural appropriation, but what A Tribe Called Red has done is quite the opposite: it’s reclamation of what is already theirs.