I’ve been trying to figure out the reasons for my extreme distaste for some forms of world music. There is a kind of contemporary music that has become ubiquitous: traditional chants from the East/South mixed over the top of Western/Northern dance and electronic music. At its best, this kind of fusion of very different styles and elements can be the occasion for a genuinely new sound—a hybrid, world music that recognizes the inevitable influence and impact of cultures on one another. At its worst, it represents little more than a particularly pernicious form of cultural imperialism. To salve the tired souls and bodies of the overworked middle and upper classes of the West (for who else would have the economic and cultural capital to pluck these kind of CDs out of the right racks?), electronized chant music is sold as a product that evokes a relaxing, spiritual reverie. Often sold next to bath oils or displays of scented candles, or in those high-end gift shops that contain not a single thing that anyone actually needs, this brand of world music offers up a fantasized and fetishized “native” culture as a New Age remedy to the discontents of the New World Order. And it does so in a paradoxical way, allowing Westerners to experience new forms of music only by first bleeding them of their potential cultural uniqueness through their immersion into slow disco beats that one wouldn’t be surprised to find as the soundtrack to a terrible, low budget movie.
It all seems pretty clear—some are good, most are bad. So what do I still need to figure out? I guess what I’m worried about is that much of what I’ve found objectionable involves the fusion of Native American chants and electronica. I love much of the music that has been coming out of England which combines dance music and (East) Indian beats, songs and rhythms. But when it comes to a mix of Native American sounds with contemporary beats, alarm bells go off in my brain. So much of this music seems to be nothing more than simply the latest appropriation of Native spirituality by a culture that unflinchingly destroyed Native society. What makes Native American music different from the other blends that could be seem as equally politically suspect?
Listening to Mystic Rhythms hasn’t helped me much in figuring this out. Indeed, it marks a new low point when it comes to this kind of musical mix. Under the pretense of examining the similarities between Indian and Native American music, Gregor Theelen dumps the vocal tracks (authentically recorded on location!) into a tepid, uninspiring stew of cliched electronica that indeed makes everything sound the same. But of course, this is the point: this music is not meant to be listened to, but to float in the background of cafes that want to send a subliminal message to drink your latte and just get out. The justification for this project is that the vocal stylings of American Indians and East Indians have some important points of connection (it has to be the vocals because the music is gone). There is even a brief discussion in the CD booklet of the land bridge over which it is speculated that Native Americans moved from Asia into North and South America. If this makes for bad anthropology (the Indian sub-continent is far away from Siberia), it makes for worse music. A useful coda to live by: treat with extreme caution anything that advertises itself as “hypnotic,” “entrancing” or as “connecting you with the rich pulse of the earth.” It gets a 2.5 only because the production seems pretty good.
// Notes from the Road
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