To shift records, world-music artists sell exotic back stories
With little access to radio play, global musicians rely on marketing hooks.
It could have been your average reggae concert: undulating vocals, punctuated keyboard riffs, rhythms that make you want to roll your hips. But these are melodies worked out in war, and the most popular song this band will play for a Boston crowd is the only one some seem to recognize: "Living Like a Refugee."Skip to next paragraph
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These are the Sierra Leone Refugee All Stars, a 10-member touring band whose musicians met in refugee camps after fleeing their country's war-torn capital. In the half-hour before the group takes the stage, many concertgoers admit they have only a vague idea what kind of music this will be. They are hoping for reggae, or Afro-funk, or, as one put it, "reggae-rock fusion African jazz beats with somethin'-somethin' thrown in."
They've come not because they know this band's music, but because they were inspired by its story: a war made famous by "Blood Diamond," a band best known through a PBS documentary of the same name, a sound most people identify with Bob Marley. All of this makes the All Stars a perfect package in today's world-music industry, where marketers and managers say the back story of a band is as important as the music it plays.
"There's a lot of really incredible music out there which doesn't get as much attention primarily because it doesn't have an interesting story," says Jacob Edgar, head of music research for Putumayo, one of world music's best-known labels. "Yes, it [might be] a good record, but you have to be able to say it's good and it comes from this really interesting place."
That place could be one of drama and tragedy – which aptly describes the punchy back story of Tinariwen, a Malian band whose ouevre is described by its publicist as a "bluesy, trancey sound." Tinariwen's members are Tuaregs, a nomadic group that roamed the West African desert for centuries and fought with the Malian government for autonomy until the mid-1990s. "They were making raw, rough audiocassettes passed from camel to four-by-four to taxi," says Dmitri Vietze, the group's publicist. "They were literally rebels, and they transposed their traditions onto guitar."
The Sudanese rapper Emmanuel Jal, a child soldier during Sudan's civil war, and the Somalian hip-hop artist K'naan have similarly snagged the spotlight with their biographies. K'naan's music incorporates some traditional Somali songs and even "little snippets of nursery rhymes, but it's very much about the experience of the streets in Somalia," says Mark Ellingham, publisher of the three-volume "Rough Guide to World Music." Those are lyrics that resonate both in Somalia and out – K'naan won a 2006 Juno Award, the Grammy equivalent in Canada, where he now lives.
K'naan raps in English, and his website offers fans not just the usual tour calendar and discography, but a personal treatise on religion and philosophy, and a crash course in Somali history and language – all of which lend something more to the music. "A lot of world music is more interesting through knowing the social backdrop through which it comes," Mr. Ellingham says. "It adds interest and power to the music."