The World Beat Goes On

Now it's a global marketplace--for music

The best way to describe "world music" is probably to explain what it isn't. Despite the vaguely New Age sound of the term, world music has nothing to do with anthems for Mother Earth or Plato's music of the spheres. It's not jazz, it's not country, it's not rap or classical music, and it's not English or American rock.

What it is is a label someone dreamed up so record stores can promote music--most of it from outside the U.S.--that doesn't fit into any other category. As a record exec's marketing ploy, it was a success. World music has surged in popularity in recent years, and it is now an established category that includes everything from the qawwali, or Sufi devotional music, of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan of Pakistan to the rai, the electrified protest music of Algeria, to the Celtic idylls of Riverdance.

The category can be a dumping ground for all manner of growls, guttural yelps, and fractious percussion. But it also includes sophisticated, muscular music that makes much of Western pop seem watery and thin by comparison. The steady thump, thump, thump of American rock seems uninspired next to the far richer polyrhythms of African pop. American pop singers suffer by comparison, too. Gwen Stefani of the hot (at this moment) American pop group No Doubt may have the looks and attitude du jour, but her vocal skills can't compete with those of Ethiopia's Aster Aweke, say, or Brazil's Elis Regina.

SHANKAR TO VEDDER. World music's popularity in the U.S. was jump-started by American and English pop and rock artists who have included it on their own records. A landmark was Paul Simon's Grammy-winning 1986 album Graceland, which featured Ladysmith Black Mambazo and other South African musicians. David Byrne of Talking Heads has released recordings of Brazilian music, and Senegalese singer Youssou N'Dour was a guest on one of Peter Gabriel's albums. Several years ago, the vocal group Manhattan Transfer departed from its usual mix of pop and jazz for a plunge into Brazilian music with its 1987 album Brasil, which featured guest appearances by a variety of Brazilian performers. The Beatles did much the same thing in the 1960s, when they introduced the world to the Indian sitar music of Ravi Shankar.

Moviemakers, too, have been attracted to world music. Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan joined Pearl Jam front man Eddie Vedder on the soundtrack of Dead Man Walking, and South African singer Johnny Clegg turned up on the soundtrack of Rain Man. While world music doesn't sell in numbers close to those of Alanis Morissette or the Red Hot Chili Peppers, it has had its own superstars--such as the Gipsy Kings, the late Tejano singer Selena, King Sunny Ade of Nigeria, and the Bulgarian choral group Les Mysteres des Voix Bulgares.

Brazil is one of the few countries that rivals the U.S. in the variety of its popular music. Its riches extend far beyond bossa nova, which now serenades us from the dark recesses of elevators and dentists' offices. Each region of Brazil has its own musical style. Milton Nascimento, who hails from the industrial state of Minas Gerais, north of Rio de Janeiro, is arguably one of the greatest songwriters anywhere. He has the unusual ability to write songs that combine elements of traditional folk music and jazz and feature haunting, unforgettable melodies. Try his most recent album, Angelus (Warner Bros.), which includes a guest appearance by James Taylor.

Other proponents of mPound sica popular brasileiro, or MPB, as it's called, include Marisa Monte, who has a new album on Metro Blue records called A Great Noise. Her music, like much of Brazilian pop, draws from the samba rhythms of the Rio carnival and pop influences from Africa and the West. Moraes Moreira has put out a new acoustic album (AcPound stico on Virgin) that features forr music, a jumpy, accordion-based dance music from northeastern Brazil. Gilberto Gil, whose soulful brand of popular music makes him something of a Stevie Wonder for Brazil, also has unplugged his guitar on an album called Acoustic (Atlantic). Brazilian jazz pianist Eliane Elias and trumpeter Claudio Roditi, both of whom live in the U.S., are among the foremost performers of Brazilian jazz.

ZULU ROCK. Brazil's music is distinctly different from the many kinds played elsewhere in Latin America. On Conga Blue (Concord), Poncho Sanchez and Mongo Santamaria play music that is both jazzy and danceable. It's a far cry from, say, the Tejano music popularized in southern Texas by Selena, or the music of the young Latin singer La India. Listen to La India on Llego La India, for a taste of cumbia, the dance music of Colombia (Sony Soho Sounds).

Moving south to Argentina, Dino Saluzzi, a master of an accordion-like instrument called the bandoneon, plays moody, meandering music derived from the tango. His Cite de la Musique (ECM) is perfect for that hour when the night is closing in, but it's not yet time for sleep. For a modernized version of the Argentine tango, listen to the music of Astor Piazzolla, creator of what he calls tango nuevo.

The Caribbean seems to produce far more than its fair share of engaging musical groups. Kassav from Guadaloupe in the French Antilles and Haiti's Tabou Combo are among the many bands that have emerged from the islands. Messenger by Luciano is a good example of the reggae music that continues to come out of Jamaica. It was released by Island Records last year.

Elsewhere in the tropics, Africa is a source of limitless musical variety. Salif Keita of Mali, whose clear, ringing falsetto often is called one of the greatest voices in the world, has a new album out on Mango Records called "Folon"...The Past. King Sunny Ade of Nigeria has been an important figure on the African music scene since the 1960s. His latest album, E Dide Get Up, on the Mesa label, is a fine example of his work.

If this is your first venture into African music, you might want to start with Angelique Kidjo from Benin, who has crafted a mixture of American funk and African music. Her latest is Fifa (Mango). South Africa's Clegg also provides a safe entry point, with music that mixes Zulu tunes and Western rock.

Many of the musical genres that coexist peacefully under the rubric of "world music" come from places far outside the tropics. In Ireland, in the County of Donegal, you will find the home of Clannad, which makes music that blends traditional Celtic melodies with contemporary pop. The Best of Clannad (RCA) is a new compilation of the band's work from the 1980s, including a track featuring Bono of U2. Varttina is a Finnish group with a pan-European sound that seems to have taken its inspiration from Celtic music and traditional folk melodies and combined them with oriental harmonies and odd meters.

Amlia Rodrigues is the queen of the sad, bluesy Portuguese music called fado. Many compilations of her work are available, including The Best of Fado, a two-CD set on the Movieplay label. A Portuguese group called Madredeus does a modern take on fado in its new album Ainda (Metro Blue).

NEW GRAMMY. Many world music albums are being produced by American record companies and are widely available at regular prices. Imports are harder to find and a few dollars more. Recognizing the increasing interest in world music, the Grammy Awards established a category for it in 1991. This year's winner was Santiago (RCA), by the Irish group the Chieftains.

For a bit more help making choices, you might want to consult The Rough Guide to World Music ($19.95, Rough Guides Ltd.). And you can find plenty of info on the World Wide Web, where it's possible to order hard-to-find compact disks. For Brazilian music, try News about Latin music can be found at Many other world music Web sites can be found through Yahoo! or other search engines. You, too, could soon be snapping your fingers to qawwali or dancing to forr.