I don’t get out of the city much, so it was with some bitter amusement that I perused Museyon’s new Music + Travel guide, with its chapters highlighting different music scenes in different cities across the globe. Even the Chicago Jazz and “Calicountry” chapters read as mildly exotic to my untraveled eyes. I have no idea if travel guides in general are aimed primarily at jet setters and those about to vacation, or schlubs like me who like to sit around and think about actually going somewhere, someday.
As far as the latter crowd goes, Music + Travel certainly provides fuel for fantasy. Yes, I would like to schlep around to a bunch of different pubs in Dublin and check out the new crop of Celtic punks! Classical concerts in gorgeous Istanbul? Sign me up! In my dreams!
Music geeks will swoon to varying degrees at the different chapters. Each was researched and written by a different “expert”, who succeed to different degrees in capturing the readers’ imagination and outlining their subject within the consistent format. Each chapter provides a short historical overview of the local genre in question and a myriad of sidebars covering relevant music festivals, websites and publications, “hometown heroes”, key albums, a timeline and a map featuring city landmarks and music venues.
There are also a lot of full color photographs. This is a nicely bound paperback that feels good in your hand and encourages leisurely browsing.
The writers here are a mixed bag. The divergent tones from piece to piece keep things lively for the most part, though some chapters left me more satisfied than others. Chicago Reader staffer Peter Margasak’s bit on his city’s rich jazz legacy somewhat dehydrates a delectably juicy topic, perhaps an inevitability given that decades upon decades of history are distilled into a few scant pages and an extremely abbreviated timeline.
To be fair, with this kind of project, familiarity is likely to breed criticism. I predictably found the extreme telescoping see in Margasak’s contribution less troublesome in Eve Hyman’s absorbing discussion of cumbia in Buenos Aires, and in other chapters where I was completely ignorant about the style in question.
Indie song writer Alina Simone’s section on “criminal chason” (or prison music) in Moskow and St. Petersburg is a great case in point. This is music that originated in Tsarist jails, where criminals set original, kinda dirty lyrics to traditional melodies.
Under Stalin the form evolved into explicit protest music, and to this day serves as a violent and raunchy “unofficial soundtrack” to Russian life, which Simone likens to “gangsta” rap or more malevolent strains of country music.
While describing a bleak and nasty genre that has developed over more than a century under unforgiving circumstances, the essay stays focused and is layered with intriguing backstory, colorful trivia, and sharp analysis. When Simone discusses Russian gangsters’ graves and the Kresty Prison (Kresty means “cross”, the shape of the storied institution that once held Trotsky among its prisoners) alongside music venues and record stores as hot spots for chason tourists to hit, you have the depth and personalized passion of the guide at its best.
Especially fascinating is Bronx-born expat Miles Marshall Lewis’ take on French Muslim hip hop, which came to prominence with the tragic deaths of Ziad Benna and Bouana Traore at the end of Ramadan in 2005. The two teens refused to show their IDs to Parisian police, who then gave chase. Benna and Traore took refuge in an electric plant, where they were accidentally electrocuted.
Their deaths set off a wave of protest, leading President Jacques Chirac to declare a state of emergency. French Muslims of color were reacting to ongoing unaddressed issues of police brutality and poverty, and escalating racism and Islamophobia. A few months later, rapper Kery James compiled Morts Pour rien (Dead for Nothing), an album to benefit the families of the dead teenagers, featuring Islamic MCs. The spread of hip hop across the globe is an amazing phenomenon, it is truly moving to see the form serve as an inspiration and voice for marginalized communities the world over.
Lewis chose a younger subject, which allows him to remain focused and detailed. He more than piqued my interest, given that Paris is one of the few places I’ve been outside the US. I’ve wanted to return ever since, and reading about this compelling scene had me chomping at the bit to get on a plane with my passport and explore the city. I do wish that Lewis had included more hip hop-specific sites on his Parisian tourist’s map (most of the stores and venues are more oriented towards popular music in general.)
There’s a bit of a depoliticized bent to this guide, which seems appropriate to its mission, but it can make for a frustrating read. I would have loved some kind of analysis of, say, Bear Stearns trader turned emerging markets expert/music blogger and club owner Michael Pettis, who ditched New York for Beijing where he devotes his time to supporting, developing, and profiting off the burgeoning music scene. It is noteworthy that, according to author Nick Frisch, so many white Westerners are up in the Beijing musical community (other local scenes featured seemed more driven by…locals.) Frisch kept seeming to want to dive into potentially controversial waters, but wound up giving readers only this in response to why Westerners are flocking to Beijing:
Foreign artists [Pettis is an artist, now?] find Beijing affordable and freewheeling and often revel in finding creative freedom in a country with such an authoritarian reputation.
That’s it? Well, I don’t expect Frisch to share my political concerns or take a stand of any kind on China’s shifting global economic position, or how Westerners are positioning themselves in relation to such. But this is a pretty travel guide, not a Noam Chomsky pamphlet. However, If you’re going raise such contentious issues, I want more than this posi-core bumpersticker analysis. Then again, I don’t know if I’m the guide’s target demo. I am only a daydream globetrotter.