Pop goes the sitar
Listen to Track 7 on the new Bruce Springsteen album, and you're in for a shock. For the first minute and 16 seconds of "Worlds Apart," there's no sign of the E Street Band's signature blend of denim and drums, sweaty headscarves and slick guitars. No sign of the E Street Band at all, actually let alone their Boss.
Instead, there's just the ethereal wailing of Pakistani singer Asif Ali Khan over a drum loop. The effect is a bit like discovering a Bollywood musical scene in the middle of a Clint Eastwood movie. But the blend of rock and world music is one that pop audiences are getting more accustomed to hearing even on the radio.
From Sting's hit "Desert Rose," with Rai singer Cheb Mami, to The Dave Matthews Band single "Everyday," featuring South African singer Vusi Mahlasela, many Western songwriters are looking to musicians around the globe for inspiration. In doing so, they're moving beyond a traditional rock & pop idiom to create exciting new musical hybrids.
"I really think it's the next wave," says Derek Trucks, who fronts his own band in addition to playing guitar in The Allman Brothers Band. "[With] all the other fusions in this country as far as jazz and blues and everything the bridge has already been crossed. I think world music is the next step."
Some artists have recently taken big strides in that direction.
Mr. Trucks's aptly titled new record, "Joyful Noise," features Panamanian singer Ruben Blades on one track. Another weaves slide-guitar inflections around the swirling cadences of vocalist Rahat Fateh Ali Kahn, nephew of the late Nusrat Fateh Ali Kahn. (Kahn, the greatest superstar the Middle East has ever produced, worked with Joan Osborne and Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder.)
A song Nusrat Fateh Ali Kahn recorded in 1997 appears on Peter Gabriel's long-awaited new studio album, "Up," out this week.
Damon Albarn, a singer with British bands Blur and Gorillaz, took his guitar to Africa to record "Mali Music," featuring Toumani Diabate.
R.E.M.'s Michael Stipe duets with Indian superstar Asha Bhosle on "1 Giant Leap," an album recorded across five continents by two British producers.
"It's all these aging white rock stars that have an ear and have heard something in this music and think, 'Yep, I want to do something in it,' " says Simon Broughton, editor of Songlines, a new magazine for world music. People tend to be nervous about trying new things, especially music, he says. It's musicians who are trusted and admired, such as Robert Plant and Paul Simon, who are able to take listeners by the hand to journey into the unknown. "Why have people heard of Ladysmith Black Mambazo? Because they're on [Simon's] 'Graceland.' "
For many rock stars, part of the reason to pair up with global musicians is to champion them. Trucks, for example, reckons he has given away at least 30 copies of Nusrat Fateh Ali Kahn's "The Last Prophet." ("We always keep about a half dozen on the tour bus," he says.) Now, the guitar slinger is hoping his new record will turn a few people onto Kahn's successor. "It's not like we can say, 'Listen to this,' and Rahat's going to sell 50,000 records," he says. "But if it turns 50 or 100 people onto his music, I think that's a positive."
Many global artists have been able to launch successful careers in the West as a result of such exposure. Mali blues guitarist Ali Farka Touré and Indian guitarist Mohan Vishwa Bhatt garnered new fans after Ry Cooder recorded an album with each of them. Another Cooder project, the enormously successful "Buena Vista Social Club," resulted in multiple CDs and tours for the Cuban musicians involved.
For many pop musicians, there's another, tangential, goal in mind when they embark on transglobal collaborations, namely, narrowing cultural divisions. "Music is almost a direct bridge to the humanity of everybody," says Rob Garza, one half of cutting-edge dance group The Thievery Corporation. In addition to exploring the collision of horns, sitars, and Bossa Nova rhythms, the duo's new disc, "The Richest Man in Babylon," features perhaps the first recording in Farsi on an electronic record. "It's also interesting because people here, they probably think of Near Eastern cultures as somehow primitive or backwards," says Eric Hilton.
Indeed, some leading proponents of crosscultural collaborations deplore what they see as another division: the term "world music." To artists such as David Byrne, the tag dangerously segregates musicians into categories of "us" (Westerners) and "them" (everyone else) both in record store racks and in popular perception. As more global musicians work together, such terminology seems misplaced.
"I'm not certain that I do world music," says Canadian composer and guitarist Michael Brooke, who recently recorded "Assembly," an album with Tanzanians Dr. Hukwe Zawose and Charles Zawose. "If you actually take the singer off ... it's really pop music with an exotic top line. I think that's one of the reasons that other people do like it. There are unfamiliar elements that they have to try and focus on when they're listening."