Various Artists: Drop the Debt

Various Artists
Drop the Debt
World Village

For Drop the Debt a hundred musicians representing fourteen different nationalities come together with one single message: Drop the debt. Each of the sixteen original songs was written or selected with the purpose of this release fully in mind. Stylistically, the music ranges from around the world, from reggae, rap, and raggamuffin to samba, morna, zoblazo, and funk. Some of it is powered out by people with famous names in the world music scene, including Cesaria Evora (Cape Verde), Chico Cesar (Brazil), and Oliver Mtukudzi (Zimbabwe).

This offering is like an old style fundraiser and a consciousness raiser. In every country where Drop the Debt is released, there is a partnering organization involved in debt cancellation. In the U.S., the partner is Jubilee U.S.A. whose website offers deep insight into the history of world debt and debt relief with suggestions for action. Thankfully there’s a lot of good music here which can help ease the bitter pill, the price of becoming more aware of the real price of debt, a devastating humanitarian crisis that is escalating rapidly. Drop the Debt is an appealing selection of music drawn from those very parts of the world that are most affected. It’s even more attractive because the musicians were given free range to say what they wanted and how they feel about this aggravating situation. Their music, of course, speaks eloquently.

So we get to hear El Hadj N’Diaye of Senegal on his haunting “Boor-Yi”. Over a gentle lilting guitar rhythm and slight percussion, he explains in a voice that whispers, quivers, and sometimes seems to choke with emotion: “We don’t live, we hang on / We don’t live, we suffer / Let’s cancel the debt / And raise our heads again / For 40 years we’ve been repaying / A debt that endlessly grows / No more school for our children / No more care for our sick / We even say we’ll never be able to pay it back / That it’s planned that way…”

No matter where the songs originate, there is a common theme of cause and effect. The rich brass sound of Latin horns leads in the sassy sounding “Cosas pa’ Pensar” by Columbia’s Totó la Momposina. This is an especially splendid arrangement, but imagine hearing a lava hot salsa with lyrics like these smoldering firebrands: “Today the world is building up debt / And these are things that demand attention / Wealth has fled / And each day we owe more / Today the people are forgotten / There are no more schools to learn in / Young people busy themselves with other things / And that saddens me / The way things are going / We cannot carry on / We have to end the debt / So we can move forward.”

The soft beat and reggae sound drive “Cadeau Empoisonne”. The civilized grace of words sung in French frame the advisement Zedess sends from distant Burkina Faso: “They give to us with their right hand and take back with the left / While hunger, poverty, and disease strikes us down / The World Bank and IMF were born / To hand out poisoned chalices.”

Perhaps the most contagious message is launched from the Ivory Coast. “Assez” by Meiway is a disconcertingly happy-sounding song. Everything about it is reaching up as high as they can. The verses are carried by sweet high voices united in chorus, there’s highlife guitar, and a swooping and softly echoing high-pitched Farsifa-sounding organ. And the words, sometimes pronounced with the trilled “r” sound unbelievably sweet: “Rich countries / Paris, New York, London, Tokyo, Berlin / We’ve given you everything / We’ve given you more than you’ll ever give / So cancel the debt.” After hearing such a reasonable appeal, and one so sweetly presented, whose heart wouldn’t be softened? Or not be moved by Oliver Mtukudzi’s impressively soulful and stirringly anthemic “Mirimi Munhu”, even not following the land reform issues in Zimbabwe?

While the whole world, it seems, wrestles with the consequences of debt servitude, developing nations in the so-called Third World are particularly hard hit, held back and held down by mountains of mounting debt. François Mauger, this record’s producer, knows singing about problems won’t make them go away. But he sees the central problem facing development is debt. With this release, he sets out to communicate that basic idea, and to make more people aware of the crushing impact that debt has on developing nations. And what could a record producer do in the way of action but something that he knows how to do best: make a record.

Mauger labored 18 months to get this record together, working nights and off hours when not on his regular job in the studio. He funded his dream project with money borrowed from friends and family. The musicians he recruited lived and worked far away so they recorded their tracks in studios in their own countries. Rallying for the cause are a surprising variety of musicians and singers from a broad range of countries — from Senegal, Brazil, Cape-Verde, the Ivory Coast, to France and Japan. Thankfully there’s a lot of good music here which can help ease the bitter pill, the price of becoming more aware of an escalating crisis. This is a great selection of music dealing with a common theme faced in every part of the world, one which is communicated quite clearly, effectively, and colorfully.

As you struggle through the next decade or two paying off those low-interest loans for college, or even willingly settle into a life of debt servitude (just another digit added to the whole sum of that “average” American, who currently uses 14% of take-home to pay on consumer debt), you might want to use Drop the Debt as the soundtrack for your own debtor’s prison. If you stop to think how debt slavery affects your own life, and will affect that of your children and their children, you may begin to empathize with many others throughout the world. You might know how long it seems when paying off an automobile or a refrigerator, even doctor bills, on time. If something happens and you miss a full payment or two, extra charges or interest points are added just to service the loan and keep it alive. Now imagine a world where 38% of your income is needed — not to significantly pay down the loan, but just to keep up paying on the interest. Would you really look forward to such a future for your own children and grandchildren when they inherit such massive national debt?

In 2001, the United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan announced that 38% of the budget of African countries is reserved to debt servicing, to pay off western financial institutions like the IMF and the World Bank. Already a larger percentage than any directed toward essential public services or nation-building, that’s another 38% of the budget that’s diverted from going into education, health, and other essential infrastructures. Millions are facing the harsh effects of living in such ruined economy, a calamity that can only grow into an even more devastating humanitarian crisis as time goes on. The stories as they affect millions of individuals can go on and on and on, and they are always complex and typically heartbreaking situations. On this disc, we hear people sharing the stories and an idea of what the solution might be, as told through beautiful music.