[27 June 2007]
In its determination to offer something new in the way of world music, Six Degrees has released two compilations concurrently. Eden is marketed as a selection of “global chill” that supposedly departs from the standard, namely: the kind of lounge music endorsed by labels such as Café Del Mar and George V. In a brief review of the album conveniently included in Eden‘s packaging, Properly Chilled magazine points out that “in comparison to the beat-driven nature of compilation series like Buddha Bar or Café Del Mar, this one is quite refreshing ... Six Degrees got it right with Eden, it’s an excellent collection of songs from a number of very talented artists that comes from a very genuine place in the label’s heart”.
While few would argue with the idea that Six Degrees possesses “heart”, the marketing for Eden and its partner, Global Dancefloor, is somewhat misleading. Neither Eden nor Global Dancefloor offer anything especially new, even if the execution of the music chosen is remarkable. Despite its pretensions to depth and texture, for example, the marketing and content of Eden appear to exemplify the surface preoccupations of world music proper. Despite its impressive roster of artists, including Six Degrees mainstays Karsh Kale, Cheb i Sabbah, Banco de Gaia, Euphoria, and MIDIval PunditZ, Eden merely reproduces all of the mystique one generally associates with New Age music. The very title of the compilation promises paradise, a misnomer not infrequently applied to “othered” or “foreign” cultural productions.
If nothing else, Eden is a perfect example of what happens when the world is viewed through the prejudiced lenses of the West. The packaging of the disc itself negates Six Degrees’ mission to cross musical borders and break down walls between genres; the paradisiacal image of world music that it offers aesthetically decontextualizes the specificities of the artists’ geopolitical locations and builds walls between cultures in addition to genres. There seems to be little to no invitation here to actually learn about the musical traditions that inform the album’s tracks. Rather, Eden asks us to revel in the exotica of music translated for the benefit of the tourist. As lush and green as the photo depicted on the cover, the tracks on this compilation reassure more than they challenge listeners who might be foreign to the climes from which the artists hail.
To be fair, some of the artists on the disc actually set out to defy cultural specificity and produce the mystical sounds characteristic of New Age. For Niyaz, which consists of vocalist Azam Ali, multi-instrumentalist Loga Ramin Torkian, and remixer Carmen Rizzo, living in the Iranian diaspora necessitates looking backwards to the mystical, Sufi poets while eschewing local character. The Turkish Saz that fleshes out the substance of “In the Shadow of Life” may echo New Age exotica, but it also expresses the group’s own complex experiences of psychic displacement. For his part, New Yorker Karsh Kale rejects any and all references to his music as “exotic”, insisting that the sounds he produces are at once Indian and American. In contrast to the album’s first track, “Beautiful” is a more upbeat ballad from Kale’s most recent release—tellingly entitled Broken English. Driven by percussive elements that seem to trip over each other and fleshed out vocally by Sophie Mitchalitsianos, the song exceeds the boundaries forged by the compilation’s unfortunate title with its deliberate confusion of musical genres. This is the music Kale grew up with, both in London and New York, and it is, undeniably, the music that has helped to build the diverse cultural landscapes of the United States. Most, if not all, Americans are not indigenous to the United States; on the contrary, they possess roots to places elsewhere. Kale and many of the other artists compiled in this collection of “global chill” implicitly insist that far from embodying some kind of paradisiacal wonderland, world music at once builds from and influences music at home as much as musical traditions abroad.
Global Dancefloor succeeds where Eden fails with a selection that is as stimulating as it is “chilling”. Whereas Eden becomes tedious in its drive toward a paradisiacal ghetto, Six Degrees’ collection of global dance gets the body moving. If you don’t believe me, try listening to it on your I-Pod while taking a walk. I received some strange looks as I enjoyed the disc on my way home, because somewhere along the way my walk turned into a dance! Los Mocosos’ Reggaeton Remix of “Bandolera Era” was the kicker. The amazing beat, the alternately gruff, chatty and melodic vocals, the Latin horns, and the band’s own commitment to lyrical substance practically embody Mexican-American performance artist Guillermo Gomez Pena’s subversive characterization of the New World Border. Hailing from New York, Batidos offers their own interpretation of the Latin world, placing emphasis on the beat to create an explosive fusion of West African, Afro-Cuban, and other musical traditions such as disco. With its echoing vocals and the rhythmic layers of percussion, DJ Ron Trent’s and Jay Rodriguez’s drum mix of “Tengo Sad” speaks volumes about the necessarily hybrid nature of music in the United States today. As increasing numbers of emigrants cross the border into both the United States and Canada, the genres that seemed to have become solid are becoming ever more fluid, thereby attesting to the more positive, cultural effects of globalization.
Now all the world needs is some more flexibility in terms of the labeling of music categories themselves. It’s all right to have a theme for a compilation, but when that theme involves the implicit labeling of an artist “exotic” the suggestion is that the looking glass works only one way. As Indian diasporic writer Salman Rushdie suggests in his highly influential and controversial The Satanic Verses, one needs to be careful about how, when, and why they enter that glass, for they may find themselves losing their “skin” in the process. While Rushdie’s analogy alludes to the often painful experiences of displacement on the part of Indian migrants in particular, it might also apply to the ways in which world music gets pulled through the looking glass and, in the process, distorted. Its cultural specificities and politics removed via a symbolic act of translation, world music is situated as an aesthetically pleasing, “exotic” artifact.
The exotification of world music, in other words, is akin to pulling it through a jagged, Western-style looking glass into a Wonderland, which, unbeknown to its inhabitants, is already turned upside down as a result of transnational movement. Global Dancefloor at least, exchanges the tedious exotica of Eden for the more self-reflexive border language of upbeat, global electronica.