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."
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."
Searching for meaning
One of the newest bands to benefit from that added power is Andy Palacio and the Garifuna Collective, whose musical roots stretch back to 1635, when two West African slave ships crashed off the coast of the Caribbean. Abandoned by their would-be masters, the survivors established communities called Garifuna in parts of what are today Belize, Honduras, and Guatemala, blending language and custom with local Carib culture.
"People interested in world music are looking for that kind of meaning," says Mr. Edgar, on whose label the Collective appears. "They want to be connecting with other cultures, enjoying music that has more spirit and soul to it than just another rock band trying to create hits."
Sometimes deepening that connection takes only a few words. For instance, Cape Verdian singer Césaria Évora, who performs without shoes, is known simply as "the barefoot diva." At other times, that connection is so all-encompassing that it frames foreign music for years. The granddaddy of this scenario is the Buena Vista Social Club, whose story blends the poverty of communist Cuba with characters worthy of Greek tragedy.
The ensemble was brought together by guitar legend Ry Cooder, who had gone to Cuba to record his own album. Instead, he produced the band's self-titled album, which went on to sell 8 million copies and inspire a companion Hollywood film. That success ripened the world-music market for other Cuban artists who played in a similar style. It also handed the market its best sales handle yet: calling a band "the Buena Vista Social Club of (insert country here)."
For all their success opening world markets to Cuban music, the group's stardom ironically shut out younger Cuban players, who were frustrated that fresher styles were overlooked. The band members were cast as the elder statesmen of their country's musical tradition – one that sounded little like what one would hear walking in the streets of modern Havana. They appealed to outsiders as "fantastic veteran old-timers with lined faces singing fantastic old songs," says Simon Broughton, editor of "Songlines," a British world-music magazine.
Nostalgia for the 'Golden Age'
Such dissonance is commonplace in world music – a troublesome category whose best-known stars might sound the least like the roots music of their country. Not all sounds cross over – especially not those from nations whose rhythm and harmonies are unfamiliar, like China or Korea. Some make the leap only after being layered into the pulsing beats of house music, drawing in a younger crowd.
Yet while established world-music buffs are often characterized as cosmopolitan and curious, they may also be seeking something a little more sentimental, something that brings them closer to that greater meaning some see in world rhythms. "It was nostalgia – a nostalgia of lots of people who weren't there, of course – but for a golden age of music," says Mr. Broughton, referencing the Buena Vista Social Club, "when musicians really knew their craft, when they'd lived that music all their lives."