Rocking to the rhythms of the world
New York — IF you think there's not much new happening in pop music, consider this: four German punk rockers, an Algerian, and a Moroccan, singing (in Arabic) a veritable stew of North African, Middle Eastern, Indian, Southern French, Corsican, Sardinian, and Greek-influenced music - to a disco/rock beat. Dubbed ``music cult item of the year'' in the Los Angeles Times this past summer, they call themselves Dissidenten, and they're a prime example of ``world beat'' or ``ethno-pop'' - music that combines ethnic roots with a Western rock beat and contemporary electronic technology.
The burgeoning interest in musical hybrids from around the world has catapulted Dissidenten, along with a bevy of other types of cultural and ethnic crossover bands, to great popularity in parts of Europe and North Africa. And they're starting to catch on in the United States, too. But there's more to the popularity of such music than just fad. In the case of Dissidenten, the band members all grew up with many kinds of native music, and are very much aware of the social and political factors that brought about such ethnic diversity.
Uve M"ullrich, Dissidenten's German bassist/guitarist, says the kind of musical hybrid he's involved in is a natural outcome of the social changes that have taken place in Europe since World War II.
``There's been a lot of intermarriage and a lot of traveling,'' Mr. M"ullrich said in a phone interview from his home in Madrid. (Other members live in Canada, Germany, and Paris.)
``This has helped develop the idea of a United States of Europe, to a certain extent. In all the major cities we have people who either come from other countries to stay here or are children of immigrants. Germany has a huge immigrant population that includes Arabs, Turks, Yugoslavs, Spanish, and Portuguese. In Berlin, we have 200,000 Turkish people and a strong minority of people from the Arabic culture. These people seem European - they're a new tribe to a certain extent.''
M"ullrich believes the cultural mixing has finally started to have a strong effect on popular music in Europe. ``American or English pop music always used to be at the top of the charts, but that has changed. Now you might have a singer from Israel and another one from Paris coming up the popular charts.''
He also cites what he believes to be the decline of English and American pop as reasons for the interest in music of other cultures. ``The English and American music business is kind of eating up itself. ... Things that happened in music five or six years ago are already being [thought of] in a kind of nostalgic fashion.''
How will the American music business react to a band that sings in Arabic, or to the crossover bands that don't perform in English? ``Look at Europe,'' says M"ullrich. ``There are 360 million people, of which maybe 50 million are English-speaking. The rest just go for the subconscious message of the music. I do speak English quite reasonably, but I can hardly follow all the lyrics I hear. It's the music - the subconscious message of the music - that works.''
Dissidenten, the German word for ``dissidents,'' refers to the artists who travel across the boundary between East and West Germany. M"ullrich had formerly collaborated with German singer Nina Hagen and had a band called Embryo, which he says became a kind of ``false symbol of left-wing German hippie-ism,'' with which he and his band members didn't want to be identified. ``We didn't feel artists should take part in that kind of thing, to that extent.''
After they witnessed the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan during the revolution in Iran, they became more aware of the world outside of Germany. ``Before that, we were living in the cultural bubble of the Western Hemisphere. We had 200,000 Turks living in Berlin almost in a ghettolike situation, and we hardly had any contact with them.''
But their new awareness - and the realization that ``there were a lot of young people from these countries who knew as much about our culture as we had now gotten to know about theirs'' - led them to form Dissidenten. The members are, in addition to M"ullrich, Hamid Baroudi (Algerian, vocals), El Houssine Kili (Moroccan, vocals and mandolin), and the German members Friedo Josch (flute), Marlon Klein (drums/synthesizer), and Roland Spremberg (keyboards).
M"ullrich collaborated with a noted Moroccan political poet, Cherif Lamrani, who wrote some lyrics for the band, and they started to tour around Europe. Now, with two albums available in the US (on Shanachie Records) - ``Sahara Electric,'' which has a strong Middle Eastern sound, and ``Life at the Pyramids,'' which reveals more of the band's African leanings - Dissidenten is ready to branch out and reach new audiences. So far they've toured the US once.
``Most people seem to like us,'' says M"ullrich. ``In Spain, we've drawn as many as 200,000 and we draw a minimum of 20,000 to our concerts. But that's an exception, because the Spanish have a strong connection with Arabia, with North Africa - they were Muslims for 800 years. It's still evident everywhere.''
Most of Dissidenten's melodies have a traditional sound, but the musical backgrounds have a definite dance/rock feel. Do music traditionalists have any problems with their music?
``They love it,'' says M"ullrich without hesitation. ``In the West, you often hear that certain things shouldn't be done, they should be preserved, and you know it's like putting these artists into a zoo, or in a museum. We have an audience from punks to grandmothers. We have a dance troupe in traditional costumes, and the rest is electronic and lights, and it fascinates them.''
To expand their horizons even further, Dissidenten is working on a recording project with North American Indians, principally Mohawks, at an Indian reservation near Toronto.
``They'll be singing in their own languages,'' says M"ullrich.
Does he believe that such cross-cultural projects can have a positive social or political effect?
``Sometimes things are automatically political, just because they're common sense. Musicians from different parts of the world get on stage together and communicate; playing together becomes a common language that we all have.''