Who among us dislikes music? Sure, we all have types of music we don't really care for: opera, punk, rap, rock and roll, top-40 pop, country and western, jazz, or-yuck-show tunes. Yet, nearly from the time of birth, humans have a universal appreciation for some kind of music. Music plays a major role in many areas of our lives we hold dear to our hearts, including our religious celebrations.
Perhaps humanity's innate attraction to music corresponds to the divine music God left vibrating at the core of our beings. (Who taught toddlers to dance anyway?) The music made by humans around the world and throughout the centuries is but an echo of the harmony, order, and tone that God uses to hold the whole universe together. It reverberates throughout all of creation, including our own human bodies, and is expressed in a myriad of different ways.
Music, liturgy, painting, poetry-and even cooking, conversing, and cleaning-in some way reveal the resonance of God deep within us. Pushing through the soil of the Fall, this seed of God's creative grace comes to light as the wonderfully diverse cultures of the human race around the world. Though all of God's creation expresses the divine touch, this creative power is multiplied in the hands (or mouth, feet, and hips!) of those who are made in God's image, who alone are charged to be its stewards, and who are endowed with a unique consciousness of their role.
A Sufi legend from Persia relates that after God created our bodies out of clay, our souls, which naturally love freedom, refused to be imprisoned within such limited confines. So God had the angels play their music, which moved the souls to ecstasy. However, not having bodies, the souls could not hear the music clearly. Nor could they express their joyful response to such a sound. So, in order to hear more clearly and dance more freely, the souls entered the bodies that God had prepared for them, bringing the clay to life.
As humans, music is at the very core of our being and all over the world this reality is being expressed in innumerable ways. In this "global village" of the late 20th century, we now have the technology and means to share cultures to a greater extent than has ever existed in all of human history. Yet the near omnipresence of cultura americana around the world has created the strange irony of young villagers in distant lands who are able to name a slew of American pop stars, but aren't able to name even one musician who is continuing the traditions indigenous to their own country. Only those who appear on one of the world's numerous MTV affiliates seem to matter.
There are two sides to this riff. The domination of American culture has also kept Americans from some of the world's most tremendous musical offerings. Our market-driven economy makes it difficult for musicians from outside the English-speaking world to receive a fair hearing. Most radio stations and record companies are hesitant to spin on a risk. And often when they do, we receive watered-down versions of the original-Americanized enough to gain acceptance by the masses, and often too much so to burn with any of the original fire that made it glow in the first place.
ONE MUSIC LABEL working to bridge the gap and make new musical forms available to Americans is Xenophile, the world roots division of Green Linnet Records, a Celtic music label based in Danbury, Connecticut. Driven by an intense personal love for music, founder Wendy Newton created Xenophile in 1993 as a way to consider "music that could not be ignored" from outside of the Celtic realm. "I knew I needed to have this music near me at this stage in my life," said Newton in an interview. "It was a visceral reaction."
Her reaction isn't surprising considering the strength of Xenophile's 1995 release Vivito y Coleando (Alive and Kicking), by the San Francisco-based Afro-Cuban group Conjunto Céspedes. Driven by the powerful and unusually passionate voice of Bobi Céspedes, a soaring horn section, and thunderous percussion, Vivito is a dance-provoking celebration of the hope and faith of life in the Americas. Conjunto Céspedes' album, along with Olorún, a Xenophile release of Afro-Cuban devotional drumming and chants by batá master Lázaro Ros, remind us of the deep reservoir of Cuban spirituality that has yet to be freed.
Similarly, Haitian group Boukan Ginen taps into the rich heritage of the African diaspora for their album of liberation music, Jou a Rive (Xenophile, 1995). Drawing on multiple sources, from Jamaican reggae to Brazilian olodum, Boukan Ginen's emphatic, soulful sound reflects the spiritual unity of African descendants in the Americas. Considering that much of the news coming out of Haiti over the past several years has been painful, Jou a Rive (The Day Will Come) is a positive (and danceable!) statement affirming Haiti's establishment as the first free black nation in the Western Hemisphere after Toussaint L'Ouverture's victorious struggle for liberation from the French in 1804, and the hope of present-day Haitians for a better future.
Xenophile reaches across the Atlantic for two of its most unique releases. Aitara, by Värttinä, a women-led Finnish band to which folk music lovers around the world are warming up, was released in 1995. Värttinä's (which means "spindle") quartet of female singers offers driving, stout songs based on the rare vocal combination of absolute beauty and absolute strength, and backed by bouzouki, accordion, and violin. Its use of non-Western scales, dissonant "harmonies," complex time signatures, and slightly melancholic tones gives Aitara a powerful spiritual undercurrent that helps carry the weight of the music.
Tarika, from Madagascar, another band led by women, is making a strong impact on the world music scene. Bibiango (Xenophile, 1994) is an upbeat acoustic album dominated by the graceful and delicate sounds of indigenous Malagasy stringed instruments and the angelic vocal harmonies of sisters Hanitra and Noro, who also share much of the song-writing duties. Their lyrics focus on those from outside the country who pay more attention to the island's wildlife than they do to the plight of the Malagasy people who suffer from hurricanes, droughts, and chronic poverty.
ELLIPSIS ARTS is another world music label putting out releases that challenge listeners to broaden their musical horizons. Rather than focusing on professional, touring musicians (as Xenophile does), Ellipsis offers music that was recorded as it was actually being performed in religious or ceremonial settings. The fact that this traditional music was recorded while fulfilling its communal role, and not created with a foreign audience in mind, makes it a very powerful listening experience. Individual musicians or songwriters are rarely, if ever, cited with these recordings, as the music is the product of the culture itself. This music is so real that one has the feeling of being caught up in the web of life from which the sounds came, rather than just exposed to another band.
And while it is true that world music has to be the real thing to be good, sometimes it can get too real. Ellipsis Arts' Trance 2 (Naqshbandi Sufis, healing and trance in Morocco, and Balinese temple festival, 1995) are part of a growing edge in world music recordings focusing on trance-inducing ceremonies from around the world.
The recording itself is riveting and powerful-yet it may not be for the uninitiated. The tendency in American culture to crave instant gratification causes people to view trances and other altered states of consciousness that can come with intense spiritual devotion as some kind of parlor trick. Some of Ellipsis Arts' promotional statements verge on being a little too glib for the power listeners are about to encounter: "Delve deeply into trance with full-length rituals from three spiritual cultures using music to open up into extraordinary realms of being. Will you join them?" ("Well, OK, but can I bring my kids?")
However, once you do get going on what Ellipsis calls a "musical expedition," the label does an extraordinary job at setting the context for the religious ceremonies being offered. The in-depth booklet accompanying the CD points out that participants in the recorded rituals undergo "rigorous training in doctrine and in a system of ethics," and that all of the ceremonies take place within the accountability of community. Here Ellipsis is on the cutting edge of increasing appreciation and understanding of some of the truly remarkable music the world's spiritual traditions have to offer.
For some, Trance 2 may sound more like required listening for a cultural anthropology course than entertainment. Still, for those with a serious interest in the world's spiritual traditions, it is a unique recording of material that until recently was all but impossible to find.
Bayaka: The Extraordinary Music of the BaBenzélé Pygmies (1995) is an Ellipsis Arts production that is simply one of the most beautiful and educational works of art available. The CD and 96-page book are filled with the colors and sounds of the Bayaka- what the Pygmies call themselves-living in the forests of central Africa. Created by Louis Sarno, an American who has spent years living with the Bayaka, this package presents some of the most important ceremonies and aspects of daily life of these people of the rain forest. The call-and-response songs the Bayaka weave through their days create an aural environment of awesome beauty that harmonizes naturally with the sounds of forest birds, crickets, and cicadas.
Sarno observes that the Bayaka are surrounded with singing, drumming, and other types of music from the moment they are born. So complete is their immersion in music that with the first words of Bayaka babies also come the first songs. Among the Bayaka, melody and harmonization develop as naturally as syntax and grammar do among other children. "By the time they are teenagers they have the technical ability, and the genius, to sing music that sends shivers down the spine," writes Sarno. "At middle age their music has the power to heal damaged souls."
Bayaka reminds us that, as humans, it is natural for us to live our lives immersed in the rhythms and melodies of music. For wherever-and whenever-there have been humans on this earth, music was there as well. Whether so-called musicians or not, we are all created to express the music of life that is dancing within us. So let's boogie!
A World Music Sampler
Thomas Mapfumo, Chimurenga Forever; Hemisphere, 1995.
Mapfumo's revolutionary chimurenga-the music of struggle-set the tone for the liberation of Zimbabwe; his deep, mesmerizing voice continues to set the world on its ear with this "best of" (1978-1993) collection. Truly one of the world's great musical treasures, he presented one of the best performances I've ever seen before a half-empty auditorium in Washington, D.C. Don't miss him if he comes to your town!
Cesaria Evora, Cesaria Evora; Nonsuch, 1995.
Cape Veradan diva Cesaria Evora has one of the deepest, smoothest, and most melancholic voices around. Her morna, a traditional slow style, reflects the nostalgic fado influence brought by former colonizer Portugal. Soulful and romantic, Cesaria Evora touches the heart of the world from her small island off the coast of Africa.
Dr. Loco's Rockin' Jalapeño Band, ¡Puro Party!; Flying Fish Records, 1995.
Pete Wilson and Pat Buchanan had better watch their backs 'cause Dr. Loco's in the casa. This "no world border" music knocks the lid off America's melting pot and serves up a raucous stew of good ol' American multiculturalism. A mix reflecting the eclectic culture of Aztlan's Chicano community, ¡Puro Party! includes world music styles as diverse as mambo, Tex-Mex, '50s rock and roll, salsa, souka, polka, hip-hop, and zydeco.
Dr. Loco, whose job when he's not rocking with the Jalapeño Band is professor and chair of La Raza Studies at San Francisco State University, gives us movimiento music with a "we-didn't-cross-the-border-the-border-crossed-us" political edge that ought to get us all out in the streets dancing for peace, justice, and old-fashioned loving thy neighbor.
And just because my mom works with Charlie Montoya, the bassist, doesn't mean this isn't world music. Hey, it's a small world, after all.
Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, The Last Prophet; Real World, 1994.
Although Pakistani Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan's penetrating wail was only recently introduced to mainstream America on the Dead Man Walking soundtrack, he has been one of the most popular musicians on the Indian subcontinent for more than two decades. As a singer of qawwali, the devotional music of Chisti Sufism, a mystical branch of Islam, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan's voice carries the passion, soul, and surrender of a true believer.
Graced by the accompaniment of the harmonium, tabla, and the brilliant female vocalist Farrikh Fateh Ali, this album offers four sublime devotional songs that only occasionally skirt the edges of subcontinent pop.
Baka Beyond, The Meeting Pool; Rykodisc, 1995.
This recording is great proof that not every blend of musical traditions will be a poor fit. Taking the structure and melody of Celtic folk and the intoxicating chants of Cameroon's Baka forest people and other African rhythms, Baka Beyond creates a unique sound that should be a beautiful surprise to cynics or those unaccustomed to world music.
Tulku, Transcendence; Worldly Music/Triloka, 1995.
This world blend almost makes it, but not quite. Mixing samples as diverse as Native American, Senegalese, and Tahitian on a foundation of techno beat and electric wizardry does something to the integrity of the original efforts. Though there are many highlights to this album for those who enjoy New Age, too much of it sounds like a pricey car commercial.