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07 décembre 2008

The new wave of cross-culture

Written by Jody Prewett, Sevenglobal,Thursday, 27 November

Not so long ago, the very utterance of the term “world music” to the proverbial indie kid or NME reader would be greeted with an onslaught of chortling and sneering. Rather like the new age genre, we’ve come to associate it with saccharine compilation albums called Sacred Spirit or the earthy ethnic hymns of Enya. The genre itself is something of a misnomer; all music should fall under the banner of world music. I’d like to think that music is a universal language that transcends cultural boundaries; surely it is a language that speaks to everyone alike?

However, it has been some time since modern pop really embraced the music of multiple cultures. Not since Peter Gabriel’s flirtations with African percussion or Paul Simon’s epochal Graceland have we been exposed to a true mingling of musical cultures. Recently, though, the tide seems to be turning with a clutch of new guitar bands being directly influenced by the music of Africa.

In recent times, indie has remained stationary and landlocked inside its own hemisphere. In the last year, there has been a new wave of bands far more at ease with the idea of world music, looking towards the primal rhythms of Africa for inspiration. This latest incarnation of guitar music has as much in common with Fela Kuti as it does with The Beatles; there is a sense of cultural crossover in pop that hasn’t been heard since The Clash collided head on with reggae.

For those unfamiliar with the genre, Afrobeat is a style that became popular in Africa during the Seventies and was spearheaded by Kuti. The music is a celebratory melting pot of African folk, funk and jazz with political undercurrents; Kuti, in particular, was compelled to react to the unsteady political climate of most African countries during the Sixties through his music. For Kuti, music is an impetus for social change, both a celebration of African folk traditions and a desire for human unity. The rich combination of primitive folk with modern electric sounds certainly seems to reflect this.

Two of the hottest new bands currently coming from the States are Brooklyn’s Yeasayer and Vampire Weekend. Both can be loosely referred to as guitar bands, but something sets them apart: they have a desire to go beyond simply being referred to as alternative rock. The debut album from Yeasayer, All Hour Symbols, is characterised by an emphasis on percussiveness combined with a sense of struggle and protest in the lyrics that echoes the great Kuti. On “2080” they sing, “I can’t sleep when I think about the future I’ve been born into” over a wash of guitar scales reminiscent of Thomas Mapfumo. This sounds unusually spiritual for a white guitar band, the kind of statement you would normally associate with the struggle against injustice of Africans during the Sixties. Perhaps this desire for universality and multi-culture in the music is symptomatic of the times we are in and represents a yearning for change in a separatist America and divided international community.

It is important to note that, on the surface, Vampire Weekend is a guitar band in the mould of Arctic Monkeys. But listen closer and there is something decidedly African in the spangling sun-soaked guitars and danceable rhythms. Both of these bands are injecting a sense of colour into the traditionally white indie alternative arena, seduced by the exoticism and splendour of the music of Africa.

Also from New York is Antibalas, an Afrobeat orchestra whose brass section forms an integral part of Foals’ Antidotes. As an album, it bypasses traditional song craft in favour of a reliance on infectious polyrhythms and repetition. The guitars, in particular, are peculiarly alien to ears trained to the established conventions of alternative music. Their two guitarists play cyclic staccato riffs, recalling the playing style of many Senegalese guitarists. In their music, you can hear the same carnivalesque sense of energy and repetition that is prevalent in African music. The Oxford-based band is regarded as one of the most progressive bands of the moment and is a front-runner in British music right now. Yet they hardly fit the stereotype of British guitar bands we’ve grown accustomed to. While the likes of The Enemy and Kaiser Chiefs are synonymous with the North of England, Foals sound like a truly international group.

It seems as though our audiences are becoming more open and accepting of more unfamiliar sounds. This wouldn’t seem so relevant if it were some underground phenomenon, but this bringing together of styles is taking place well within the radar of the mainstream press. It promises the kind of step forward that has previously been stunted by the regressive Britpop boom and the consciously retro “New Rock Revolution”.

In the 1980s, Talking Heads were heavily influenced by Afrobeat and very reactionary to the grit and grime of punk rock. Their sound was built on a funk groove that celebrated the concept of a large group of musicians singing and dancing in a kind of musical celebration of unity. In many ways, Talking Heads embody the idea of diversity and seem driven to distance themselves from the mono-culture of hard rock and punk of the 1970s. At the same time in Britain, The Clash played a politicised amalgamation of punk and reggae while The Specials were at the front of the ska movement. The current resurgence seems to mirror what happened during the Eighties in the borrowing of sounds from beyond the realms of recognised pop culture.

In dance music, Afrobeat is also thriving, with DJs Giles Peterson and Laurent Garnier regularly mixing Kuti or Ethiopia’s Mulata Astatke into their sets. Certainly, African music lends itself more directly to the dance floor, yet it is hugely symbolic that audiences are embracing Afrobeat to such an extent that it is beginning to influence our own popular music. It doesn’t seem to be a conscious source of influence either, more a subconscious gradual change in how people are approaching music-making.

Looking back to the 1990s and the turn of the millennium, pop culture seems to have its own distinct regional identity. From Britpop to grunge through to nu-metal and nu-rave, the mainstream has had a traditionally Anglo-American soundtrack and pop music hasn’t really made any great leaps across cultural boundaries. The renewed sense of openness displayed by the likes of Vampire Weekend and Yeasayer is an indication that universal divisions in the music world are narrowing once more. Perhaps today’s bands are tiring of the same reference points or are simply fed up with being conveniently categorized and thrown into a whirlpool of multiple genres and sub-genres. The timing is almost perfect. In the wake of Barack Obama’s vote of confidence from America, could this be the opening to a new dawn of truly multicultural music?

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