Beyond the Bubble of the Grammys

by Derek Beres

11 February 2009

The Grammys suffer from the same problem as the rest of the recording industry: thinking America defines culture.
Lila Downs, whose album Shake Away was nominated for Best Contemporary World Music Album at this year's Grammy Awards. 

In a lot of ways, it is a no-win solution, especially when what’s expectable always comes true—otherwise known as the Grammys. We know that albums, singles, videos, producers et al. will be chosen for reasons other than music; and on occasion, it will have a little something to do with music. The awards will concern themselves with costumes donned by attendees and awfully boring, remanufactured songs to make the unmemorable night even less memorable. I’m not sure what the awards originally signified—they are 18 years older than myself—but in my lifetime, it has always been about being in the in, and staying in when you’re inside.

And the clean edge of the sword: it is one of the few ways to raise the American consciousness about music outside America. Not that it amounts to much; those awards are handed out when no television cameras are pointed, when no made-up faces are staring their way. For the most part, news of World Music Grammys stays as isolated as those in the Reggae, Children’s, and Polka categories—insular, within the niche community that already supports the genre. Even within these narrow confines, the glimpse is equally frustrating.

cover art

Les Primitifs du Futur

Tribal Musette

US: Available as import
UK: Available as import
France release date: 14 Apr 2008

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El Hadj N’Diaye


(Marabi France)
US: Available as import
UK: 10 Jun 2008

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Seckou Keita Quintet (SKQ)

The Silimbo Passage

(World ArtVentures)
US: 16 Sep 2008
UK: 2 Jun 2008

The 2009 World Music winners: Mickey Hart and Ladysmith Black Mambazo. Again.

Let’s be clear on one thing: both of these artists are fully deserving of a Grammy. Hart’s Global Drum Project alongside Indian tabla master Zakir Hussain was one of my top ten favorite albums of the year—in 2007, the year it was released. I know, I know, cut-off dates; it just slipped in by being released in October. For their part, Ladysmith Black Mambazo is an amazing and socially important group, but it’s like they are among one of six artists anyone in the voting pool knows of.

For example, let’s look at categorical differences. In 2009, Ladysmith Black Mambazo won the Best Traditional World Music Album for Ilembe: Honoring Shaka Zulu. In 2007, they were nominated for Best Contemporary World Album, with Long Walk to Freedom. That year, Soweto Gospel Choir—a troupe admittedly influenced by Ladysmith (actually, a “supergroup” vocal ensemble of sorts) from South Africa, won the Traditional Grammy for Blessed; a year later they won the same for African Spirit. This year, they were nominated in the Contemporary category for Live at the Nelson Mandela Theater. Anyone who has listened to these three albums knows that they are not different enough to earn categorical distinctions; nor, in this listener’s ears, worthy of earning three straight nominations (and two awards!) when so many beautiful albums are produced across the planet.

Access. In the in.

Yet it’s not even that deep, especially when considering who votes for the Grammys; it’s more the placement of publicity, like in all the other categories. World music, like polka, and even reggae (while the Marleys are certain credible artists, their brand name usually warrants a victory, proven by Damian and Stephen over the last few years), is an afterthought for many of the producers, critics, record notes writers, and others involved in the voting process; a matter of checking off the box next to the name they’ve heard the most, or seen here and there on a CNN special. Of course South African artists devoting songs to Nelson Mandela are sureshots—where the news goes (or went, once; let’s check the median age of voters), the vote goes.

Is this the end-all? Of course not. Debashish Bhattacharya’s excellent Calcutta Chronicles was up for an award this year; Lakshmi Shankar’s effort on World Village was also nominated, though from the point of view of Indian devotional singing, this was a bit of a stretch. Of all the albums in the Traditional category, perhaps Toumani Diabaté‘s was the finest, though his name is another “in” in the industry, given his ties to the deceased Ali Farka Toure. In that category, only four albums were nominated. I received a few hundred world music albums last year—was there really not another worthy of recognition?

In contemporary, Lila Downs’ Shake Away did create a splash, even though I thought it not to be her finest; it was still good, and she is a motivated, passionate purveyor of Mexican folk traditions. Youssou N’Dour and Gilberto Gil are always no-brainers; again, ironically, neither had their finest hour in 2008 (or 2007 for that matter). And, of course: the winners, Hart/Hussain, along with Soweto. How either of those albums was considered contemporary in light of their contexts is beyond me.

A bit of a sidetrack, though if you’re going by what remains of record stores, categorically related: Burning Spear in Reggae? Legend—certainly. Was. His latest was as over-manufactured and outlandishly overproduced as anything in Rock and Pop. Yet somehow this is the key to the Grammy code.

Solutions? Certainly. Check out Rootz Underground or Groundation to get a pulse on what’s happening in modern reggae; check out I-Wayne and John Brown’s Body and Midnite and Fat Freddy’s Drop. There’s so much goodness out there. Let us remember “Marcus Garvey” and let “The Cruise” go; Spear, you’ve had one too many on that tourist ship, stop the industry chattering in your head and get back to your roots (to Roots!)—or get out.

As for the globe? Les Primitifs du Futur put out an amazing collection of chanson-inspired tunes in France, Tribal Musette, and El Hadj N’Diaye released one of the most beautiful, thoughtful albums of 2008, Geej. Another African disc of note was put forth by Seckou Keita, The Silimbo Passage. Of course, since that was on a small label, chances of it getting within the sights of Grammy voters is tough. (Although, admittedly, Jack DeJohnette did win a Grammy on his indie label, albeit in New Age, which is predominantly made up of indies.) Or, let’s stop by Nigeria: Seun Kuti is keeping his father Fela’s flame doused in fire. Allow that midlevel Indian sound to go; Bombay Dub Orchestra dropped real contemporary sounds with 3 Cities. Let’s get some beats in that category, already.

This is exactly what a supposedly reputed organization like Naras needs to do: evolve. Yes, Youssou and Gilberto are contemporary, but they are not pushing the boundaries as they once used to; the Grammy Awards are 20-some years behind on that curve. This does not mean they are not making quality music (N’Dour, at least). But listen beyond the eight albums you came across in the category you voted for; find something with electronic undertones, if you want to really access what is contemporary. There’s more to the electronic age than Daft Punk and…Madonna? Again?

The Grammys suffer from the same problem as the rest of the recording industry: thinking America defines culture. This form of thinking leads to an implosion, social and psychic, in the minds of those who only know this way of life. We’re already seeing such an event, in so many ways, within the music business; you could say the Grammys are the last illusion still being held, and watching them is a sad display of what we’re trying to recapture as a culture. If you want to expand your horizons, go beyond what you already know and have been practicing far too long. It might require effort, but the rewards are unmatchable, and will touch more people than staying locked inside the bubble surrounded by mirrors on all sides.

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