A friend of mine read this and said ‘Dude, you’re getting old,’ missing the whole point of the column. Oh well…
Column 186 — In Any Language
World Music is cooler than you think.
I spent last weekend driving through the sun-baked streets of Southern France. Sure, it was all in my mind, but from time to time, as I motored down Underwood Ave. and across the slippery, snaky back of Turner Blvd., I also was cruising along a cobblestone street in Dordogne on my way to Sarlat, dodging crepe vendors and an array of French poodles. The fantasy — or at least its soundtrack — came courtesy of a record label called Putumayo.
Putumayo recently transported me to Quebec, Africa, Latin America and the discos of Europe via its ongoing series of World Music compilations.
Stop. Did he just say “World Music”? This guy is supposed to be telling us about indie music — local or otherwise — and now he’s going off on a World Music label? Things must be mighty slow at Saddle Creek these days. Isn’t World Music for old people, New Age health-food hippies and bearded, slouching, sadly dressed literature professors?
Yeah, that’s what I used to think, too. World Music = New Age = Boring. But there was a time in the late ’80s early ’90s when World Music emerged as something cool, thanks to ex-Talking Heads frontman David Byrne and his Luaka Bop label. Byrne broke through the New Age preconceptions of World Music by uncovering hip sounds by the likes of Tom Zé, Os Mutantes, Zap Mama, but more specifically (in my case) by releasing compilations like Brazil Classics 1: Beleza Tropical; Brazil Classis 2: O Samba, and Cuba Classics 2: Dancing with the Enemy. Luaka Bop provided a sound and beat that was a million miles away from the Ritual Device, Replacements and Husker Du albums that had been clogging up my CD player. The label was hot for a number of years, then David Byrne left, and it sort of faded from memory, and that old perception of World Music quickly returned.
Now along comes Putumayo World Music. Actually, the label’s been around for 15 years, starting up shortly after Luaka Bop, but I’d never heard of it until just recently, when out of the blue Putumayo compilations began showing up in my mailbox.
Kaveh Sarfehjooy, marketing executive at Putumayo in New York, thinks the dated stigma behind the term “World Music” is fading. “Part of selling anything is giving it a certain label,” he said. “World Music to me is music from different parts of the world that isn’t normally heard. It’s a nebulous term. People should make their own definition.”
At a time when the entire industry seems to be in an endless downward spiral, Sarfehjooy said Putumayo’s sales have remained steady, apparently immune to the forces killing everyone else. He pointed to the label’s network of non-traditional outlets that includes book stores, coffee shops, health food markets like Whole Foods as well as the traditional independent record stores like Homer’s.
He said Putumayo, a small indie label which has sold more than 20 million CDs, is constantly searching for music that people haven’t heard before, and includes both classic and contemporary songs by leading singer-songwriters.
The soon-to-be released Acoustic France compilation (the CD that transported me to Dordogne) is a good example. The 12-song sampler is one of the best indie albums I’ve heard this year, even though I didn’t understand a thing anyone was singing. The collection includes a number of songs that you’d expect to hear on a soundtrack to a European indie film or a France-based Woody Allen flick. The acoustic guitar basso nova whistler “Assidic” by Les Escrocs is pure striped shirt, pencil mustache and beret, and also was a big hit in France back in ’94 (according to the liner notes). You’ll also expect to hear stuff like the swing guitar rambler “J’Suis Pas d’lci” by Thomas Dutronic and the lilting guitar waltz “Romane” by Passion, dripping with the same atmospheric intrigue found in a French spy novel.
What you won’t be expecting is stuff like the trip-hop-inflected “Clash Dans Le Tempo” by Constance Amiot, Sadrine Kiberlain’s chugging “Le Quotidiem” and back-beat shuffler “Sombre Con,” by Rose, all of which would be right at home on any American indie album if they were sung in English (and believe me, there’s plenty of American indie music that would be greatly improved if it were sung in a foreign tongue).
Part of what makes this music so endearing is that I don’t have a clue what they’re singing about. It’s that same quality that makes Putumayo CDs perfect for background music at events like art shows, though relegating it to such a fate would be a mistake — I found myself listening to this CD over and over last weekend without getting bored.
Sarfehjooy said Putumayo targets “cultural creatives” who are more likely to approach music with an open mind. “They’re people who are interested in other cultures,” he said. “When we started, our demographic may have skewed older, but with the introduction of our Groove and Lounge series, we’re naturally attracting a younger audience.”
And that includes followers of traditional indie music. “A lot of scenes, like indie rock, punk and electronica are marginalized and consist of people whose tastes aren’t dictated by mainstream tastes,” Sarfehjooy said. “We’re getting more and more interest from hip-hop DJ’s who feel the international flavor of the music naturally fits into their sets. It doesn’t matter what you’re into if the music’s good.
“With the Internet, there are just more outlets to be exposed to good music, whether it’s from Greece, Iran, Egypt, Tahiti or Thailand, it’s all more readily available on line,” Sarfehjooy said. “The world is getting smaller.”
Tonight there’s a worthy benefit show at The Waiting Room featuring superstar acts Forty Twenty, The Filter Kings and Black Squirrels. The $10 at the door will go toward covering bartender Dave Syslo’s medical bills for recent cancer surgery. We all understand how important it is to keep Omaha’s best bartenders healthy and on their feet, which means I’ll be seeing you at the show. 9 p.m. Wear scrubs.
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