[27 March 2008]
For the past few months, one of the hottest bands around has been Vampire Weekend, four smartly dressed lads who met at Columbia University. The group’s self-titled album on XL Recordings debuted at an impressive No. 17 on the Billboard charts last month, and MTV recently hung massive images of the band in its windows overlooking Times Square, an honor usually reserved for household names.
What does this hip new band sound like? Trendy emo? Mainstream rock?
Would you believe ... African pop?
Anyone needing proof that globalization refers not just to economies but to cultures should examine what’s happening in music, as young bands increasingly reach beyond the confines of traditional rock to discover music from all over the planet. For years, the indie-rock scene has dipped into familiar wells - classic punk, `80s dance beats, the perennial folk genre - most of it thoroughly Western. Now, however, the whole world is fair game, from Africa to Latin America to Southeast Asia. This emerging genre doesn’t have a name yet - call it passport rock - but already these bands are popping up in music magazines, buzzing through the blogosphere and drawing attention from major labels.
No single country or sound dominates the new musical landscape. The band Dengue Fever, from Los Angeles, plays Cambodian psychedelic rock. The Oaks, from Orlando, Fla., include musicians who dabble in Iranian, Moroccan and Afghani music. Extra Golden, based in Washington, D.C., features two members who live in Kenya, an arrangement that makes every rehearsal a special occasion. Bamboo Shoots, a dance act from New Jersey that draws on South Asian rhythms, is even denting the mainstream: The group recently won a best-band contest on MTV’s college-oriented music channel MTVu, which led to a deal with Epic Records.
Already there’s been some backlash, with Vampire Weekend drawing fire for mixing up some of its African references. (Critics have debated whether the song “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa” actually qualifies as kwassa kwassa music or as a Congolese soukous - though it’s safe to say most fans don’t care.) More notable is that the usual controversy around world music - is it a respectful homage or just another example of cultural thievery? - is largely absent.
“Maybe someone’s grumbling about it,” said Tad Hendrickson, editor in chief of Global Rhythm magazine, “but most of the music we cover is artists from around the world, and they’re busy plundering music from other cultures just as much as the Anglo-Western culture is plundering them.”
If anything, bands that dabble in world music are likely to be branded as trend-hoppers, not imperialists. “In the next year, I’m thinking there’ll be at least three or four more bands that sound like Vampire Weekend,” Cortney Harding, indies correspondent for Billboard magazine, said. “These are kids who want to show the world that, `Hey, I’ve traveled through Vietnam, and I picked up this cool goat-herder music.”“
The musicians tend to offer a different explanation. They talk about a world that’s growing smaller, where the Internet can bring even the most far-flung music into your bedroom. But another factor may be America’s increasing role in global affairs. From wars abroad to fear of terrorism at home, the country’s turbulent political climate may be forcing the younger generation - traditionally an insular lot - to grapple with the world at large.
“9-11, for me, I have to give it a lot of credit for pointing my mind toward that part of the world,” said Ryan Costello, 29, singer for The Oaks. Costello, who lives in Winter Park, Fla., moved to Afghanistan in 2003 and for nearly two years worked with the nonprofit aid group Global Hope Network, learning Farsi and jamming with local musicians. Those years influenced The Oaks’ new self-released album, “Songs for Waiting,” which features a track called “Masood,” based on the saga of Afghani war hero Ahmed Shah Masood, assassinated in 2002.
“I even went to a recording studio in Kabul, believe it or not - they actually have one,” Costello said. “They have a thriving artist community, but it’s very underground. The Taliban killed all the artists and musicians.”
For Costello, the rootsy, homemade music of the Afghanis provided a refreshing antidote to the jaded indie-rock back home. In Afghanistan, he said, “When someone makes a song, they make a song to express something deep in themselves, something real. Nobody has the time to make some kind of ironic meta-statement.”
Rolf Klausener, leader of the Canadian band The Acorn, found a more direct route to world music: His mother, born Gloria Esperanza Montoya in Honduras, ran away from her abusive father as a young girl and eventually found her way to Montreal in 1972. Only recently did she reveal details about her difficult childhood, Klausener said, inspiring him to dramatize her story and explore the traditional Garifuna music of Honduras on The Acorn’s new album, “Glory Hope Mountain” (Paper Bag Records).
Klausener, 30, knew nearly nothing about Honduras or its music, he said, noting that his mother rarely spoke Spanish and had essentially rejected her background in an effort to assimilate. But by educating himself with field recordings from the Smithsonian Institution, Klausener began folding rhythms and chants of Garifuna music into his compositions. “I wasn’t interested in another `two guitars, bass and drums’ record,” he said. “I wanted to do something a little more expansive.”
One drawback to that approach: finding similar bands to play with. Recently, The Acorn found itself on a tour mismatched with an alternative-country act, which resulted in the occasional baffled audience. “For the first two upbeat songs, they were really into it,” Klausener said of a show in Alberta last fall. “Then, they just stood there with their arms crossed.”
As for Vampire Weekend, the band is almost finding itself pigeonholed as “Upper West Side Soweto” - a term the band coined.
“It’s almost gotten to the point where it’s been overstated,” said bassist Chris Baio, 23, who lives in Brooklyn. “I think the whole album has a really wide range of sounds and influences. The African influence is just one of many sounds, and for whatever reason that seemed to strike a chord with people.”
Vampire Weekend came to African music the way most folks do: through compilation CDs and by trolling the Internet. (Fela Kuti, the Nigerian multi-instrumentalist who helped popularize the “Afrobeat” sound, is a band favorite.) The goal of Vampire Weekend, Baio said, was “to get a band together using rock instruments that wouldn’t sound like a traditional rock band.” Though the group chose to define itself with African music, none of the members had ever been to Africa.
“It was just a sound that we liked and a sound that inspired us,” Baio explained.
It may seem odd that four musicians would meet and form a band based on rhythms and melodies of a country they’d never seen. Then again, in the 1960s that happened all the time - the country was called England. Or, if you happened to be English, it was called America. And that’s how new forms of rock music were created.
“We’re not pretending to be experts in African music,” Baio said. “It’s more just an influence, and we’re trying to do something different.”