BOSTON — It has long been a truism that music is a global language. But that capacity to reach beyond speech and culture - to transport listeners to a common realm - has recently led to the dramatic growth of a new genre: world music.
From clubs to concert halls, on CDs and at festivals, artists from many nations are gaining new followings with fresh sounds, experimentation across cultures, and the melding of diverse traditions.
In the United States, the sales of world-music records have doubled in the past five years. And while world music accounts for less than 5 percent of the total market, its influence is ricocheting as never before.
So today, Seattle rocker Eddie Vedder and Pakistani wonder Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan weave sounds together for a movie soundtrack ("Dead Man Walking"). Pop-rock veterans, such as Van Morrison and The Who, add percussionists to their groups. And musicians such as Peter Gabriel and Johnny Clegg, who helped pioneer contemporary world music, continue to surge in popularity.
Blues, folk, and jazz artists are also borrowing and branching out. And "roots" musicians, such as Bulgaria's Folk Scat and Tibet's Youngchen Lhamo, are gaining more exposure and respect through independent record labels and promoters. Meanwhile, melders like the duo Dead Can Dance draw upon different "international" sounds to create songs that trace back to no single place. Driving the trend are listeners and artists craving "something different."
What is world music?
Given the great diversity in category and style, it is not surprising there is little agreement on exactly what constitutes this genre. It could be Afro-Caribbean rhythms, Celtic fiddles, or reggae. Gregorian chants, Aborigine didgeridoo, or Tajikistani pop. Salsa, samba, or Johnny Clegg and Savuka.
Some musicologists argue that all music is world music. After all, rock-and-roll traces back to Africa. Record-store employees, on the other hand, will direct you to a specific section. And the Billboard charts seem to define world music by artists who have put a pop spin on traditional music, including the Gipsy Kings (pop flamenco from France), Celtic groups like Clannad (Ireland) and Capercaillie (Scotland), and performers like Loreena McKennitt (Canada) who mix and meld sounds.
Robert Browning, artistic director of the World Music Institute in New York, describes a world-music spectrum that has emerged to define, albeit fuzzily, the genre's reference points. On one end of the spectrum you have classical or traditional "roots" music, which commercial types might write off as esoteric ethnic. On the other end, you have dabblers and amalgamators whose music is more accessible by Western standards.
One tongue-in-cheek comment overheard these days in US world-music circles involves the current Macarena craze - the dance music that is showing up everywhere from the Republican Party convention to kindergartens: "Macarena - isn't it great to see a world-music song finally make No.1?" Many see the song as more of a fad than as a world-music milestone.
From 'Day-O' to today-O
International influence on modern music is not exactly new. Harry Belafonte introduced a calypso craze in the late 1950s singing "Day-O." The Beatles incorporated Indian elements into some of their music. And in recent years, Paul Simon set pop melodies to South African rhythms with "Graceland" (1986) and then bowed to Brazil with "Rhythm of the Saints" (1990).
Few artists, however, have done more than Peter Gabriel in exposing pop enthusiasts to world music - and its power to champion human rights. In the 1980s, Gabriel sought out some of the world's best musicians, including Senegal's Youssou N'Dour, and established the Real World Records as well as WOMAD (World Organization of Music and Dance).
David Byrne must also take credit for furthering the cause with his interest in South American music, as well as Johnny Clegg who emerged from apartheid South Africa with his Zulu-inspired tunes.
Western music is meeting the rest of the world on many levels. Perhaps the most visible element of crossover is percussion. Mickey Hart of the Grateful Dead won a 1991 Grammy for Best World Music Album for "Planet Drum." More recently, he formed Mystery Box, a group that brings together some of the world's top percussionists.
Victor Mendoza, a well-known Latin-jazz composer and vibraphone artist, explains that from an artistic standpoint, music from different cultures opens up doors to creativity and inspiration. "You look at your own music in a whole different way, and you're never bored." His fantasy, he says, is to compose an orchestral piece based on each of the Central American countries' traditional music. "If my exposure allows for their style of music to be known better, then I've accomplished what I was meant to do."
Many musicians feel as Mendoza does that their efforts to make others' music known are part of a larger picture, perhaps a larger mission to educate and bring people closer together.
As a result, they say, music fans become more open-minded and more likely to explore. Tom Wegen, a longtime buyer for world music at Tower Records, Boston, is sure of this. The size of his department has tripled in seven years.
Unlike a decade ago, browsers can find just about every country represented, says Mr. Wegen. Folk music from Azerbaijan? Yeah, we've got that.
"Most 'ethnic' music is obscure," Wegen admits: "I'm the only one I know who likes primitive Aborigine music."
But the world is getting more curious, he acknowledges, and when the likes of Gloria Estefan and the Gipsy Kings come along as chart-toppers, not to mention the Bayside Boys and their Macarena mix, interests expand.
One of the most visible promoters of world music of late is Putumayo, known for its globally minded retail stores that sell clothing, crafts, and now, music. The recent release "One World" is a sampler of songs that marks a more-mainstream marketing effort in the name of world music.
"We know there's a lot of great music out there, and very little of it is played on radio," says Putumayo World Music founder Dan Storper. With a mission of bringing melodic, upbeat songs that appeal to the sophisticated listener as well as the "beginner," Putumayo hopes to give listeners a glimpse of the power of music to bring people together.
"For world music to carry to the next level, we need to develop stars and consistency," Mr. Storper says.
Other companies and independent labels specializing in world music include Green Linnet's Xenophile, Ellipsis Arts, Nomad (Music of the World), Sanachie, Intersound, Rounder Records, Rykodisc, and more.
Larger record companies such as EMI's "Hemisphere" label are branching out, too.
Educators go beyond Bach
In the classroom, Berklee College of Music in Boston is testimony to a greater interest in world music. Today the school offers 27 world music courses, from "African Pop Ensemble" to "Brazilian Musical Styles," compared with six in 1991. This year, for the first time, the college is offering a major in hand percussion, and it recently sponsored the Berklee College of Music's World Percussion Festival, drawing musicians from Sweden to South America.
Mr. Browning, of the World Music Institute, has had a finger on the pulse of world music for almost 20 years, and has watched interest increase "dramatically" - particularly in New York.
Growing immigrant populations tend to have an interest in their "national" music, whether it was classical or popular, Browning explains. So it follows that you could hold a Persian music concert at Lincoln Center and get a crowd of 2,000. "Many wouldn't have gone in India, but [here] they gather for national identity." Now, the general public seems to not only be open to but also willing to hook into world music. The Throat Singers of Tuva, from Siberia, for example, attracted remarkable attention, he says.
While the trendiness of world music can be good, Browning says, he cautions that some of the fusing going on can have a negative effect: "One fears the demise of traditional music." The so-called New Age movement for a while posed a grave threat to traditional music, he adds, watering it down and disguising it. Experiment is great, and crossover is important, but it must be done in good faith. Things seem to be swinging back. "I see evidence of music moving away from the melting pot to a more multicultural identity."
Andrew Sidenfeld, founder of the world-music promotion company "No Problem Productions," suggests yet another impulse for the current surge in pop-world-music popularity. It is partly due, he says, to people bucking the mainstream music-industry control.
"The power is falling into fewer and fewer hands.... What we hear now is more and more formulaic, and people are fed up with the lowest-common-denominator approach [what will make a hit, what will sell]. The rise of world music is a reaction against that. When you give people fewer and fewer choices, they want to explore a whole new world."
A PLAY LIST
Curious about world music, but don't know where to start? Tom Weden, buyer of world music for Tower Records in Boston, suggests some releases:
One World (Putumayo): Good starter kit featuring major world-music artists.
Cesaria vora - (Nonesuch): Self-titled CD from the Cape Verdean songstress.
The Best of Thomas Mapfumo - Chimurenga Forever (Hemisphere): This musician from Zimbabwe serves up traditional music with a modern twist spanning 1978-1993.
Beleza Tropical (Luaka Bop/Warner Bros.): Classic Brazilian pop-music tracks, compiled by David Byrne.
Global Divas - Voices From Women of the World (Rounder): Giants in their field.
Jess Alemay's Cubanismo! (Rykodisc/Hannibal): Immediately accessible, yet also a burning example of Cuban salsa.
Victor Manuelle - self-titled (Sony Discos): One of the most popular Salsa records on the market.
Cachao - Master Sessions, Vols. I & II (Crescent Moon/ Epic): The living master of Afro-Cuban music, Cachao is the real mambo king.
Fito Paez - Circo Beat (Warner Latina): From Argentina, Fito Paez has not yet gotten the attention he should in North America. He is Beatles-influenced, but true to his Latin roots in rock.
A Treasury of Irish Song (Shanachie): Ireland's finest female singers. Enchanting.