WHAT'S the latest in pop music? That's a question the New Music Seminar here has been exploring each year for the past decade. And this year, the answer is clear: international music.
More than 1,550 people from abroad (out of a total of 7,700) attended the sessions held last month at the Marriott Hotel here. The bands on hand ranged from the Brazilian rock group Paralamas do Sucesso to Major Force, a rap group from Japan. They included bands from France, the Soviet Union, the Caribbean, and Iceland. At night the bands - some 270 in all, both well-known and unknown - performed at Manhattan clubs. Seminar participants hopped from club to club until the wee hours of the morning to sample the variety. The performers ranged from Israeli vocalist Ofra Haza to the Paris-based Guinean singer and kora player Mory Kante.
The panels dealt with such inflamatory issues as censorship and sexism in music and nuts-and-bolts items like how to get a record contract and what's happening in the music video and college radio fields.
A panel on new French music noted that, unlike the rest of Europe, France has largely abandoned music from the United Kingdom and United States and is looking inward to music that is distinctly French and outward to Africa and the Caribbean.
At a panel on ``world-beat'' music, Ivan Goldberg of J&R Records, a retail outlet in Manhattan, remarked, ``Language doesn't have to be a barrier. American music is really tired. [World-beat music] is refreshing. ... All American music is saying is: Let's do drugs; let's not do drugs; let's have sex; sex isn't safe any more.
``There are exceptions, of course, like Tracy Chapman,'' he continued. ``But world music almost always talks about human rights, suppression, and freedom of speech. We owe it to ourselves to broaden our horizons and not let this stuff get watered down.''
Other panelists agreed that American listeners could benefit from broadening their perspective. ``We suffer from provincialism,'' said Verna Gillis, manager for the Senegalese singer Youssou Ndour. ``How will the US respond to someone singing in Wolof?'' - Ndour's native tongue.
Gillis's question has been partly answered by the enthusiastic response to Ndour's video with British singer Peter Gabriel, ``In Your Eyes,'' which is being shown widely on music video TV channels in the US.
And, to judge by the enthusiastic reception that both Ofra Haza and Mory Kante received, it appears that international music may not be just a passing trend but an influence capable of coloring the whole spectrum of pop music.
However, one disappointment in the rainbow spectrum of international music was the low visibility of Latin music, both in panel discussions and performance.
In previous years, there have been panels about the impact of racism on the music business, but this year the emphasis switched to the more positive theme, ``Africentricity,'' which was broadly defined by panel moderator Bill Stepheny of Rush Productions as ``using Africa as a base for your culture.''
Africentricity involves a recognition that most pop music is influenced by black, and thus by African, culture. Author and journalist Nelson George pointed out that people are beginning to realize that ``European culture is not the center of the social universe.''
Chuck D of the rap group Public Enemy, which recently came under fire for alleged anti-semitic remarks made by Professor Griff, who left the group because of the incident, felt that rap music is a sort of underground information network for the black community.
``There's no network among blacks,'' he said. ``We have no control of the media; whites don't know how we feel.'' He criticized black radio for its format of little talk and a lot of music. ``They should talk, teach, and play the music,'' he said. ``Seventy percent of black people are 30 and under; rap is their thing. It gets to the point [that] it's a definition of how we're living.''