Are We The World?

Global Music in the U.S. Faces the 21st Century

In the mid '80s, Nonesuch stopped resting on its respected classical and ethnographic laurels and produced the first U.S. recording of Brazilian pop star Caetano Veloso. Then, in the late '90s, when it decided to get serious about promoting contemporary African musicians, it licensed material from Oumou Sangare, Ali Farka Toure, and Afel Bocoum to supply its World Circuit imprint. One can't help but wonder what would happen if any of these acts were given a substantial artist-development budget. All of these developments tend to recast the overwhelming Anglo-American influence on global pop for the past 50 years as an idyll, an extended advertising coup, a tribute to African American innovation, and to a certain degree, an economic mirage.

Future trends in world music are for the most part already "here," though they still operate a bit under the radar of suburban mall commerce. The Indian diaspora—which hasalready given us bhangra, anokha, and unexpected new forms of Trinidadian soca—will become even more influential in underground dance music as deejays and divas from Brooklyn and Jersey continue to cross-pollinate by traveling to clubs in London, Italy, Japan, and Singapore. Indian and Arab Muslim communities in San Francisco and L.A. are importing films and pop music from their countries of origin that have already inspired innovations in West Coast hip-hop. The Saudi production of an uptempo Arabic tune called "Bye-Bye Princess Diana" is as infectious a piece of polyrhythmic call and response as anything ever produced by C&C Music Factory, and remains a big seller in San Francisco after more than a year.

Aside from the fact that a new group of gullible eight-year-olds comes along every year, I predict that the pop music market of the 21st century will be consumer-driven rather than steered by manipulative multinational label heads. I predict that funky Afro-French pop by girl duos like Native and Les Nubians will create an American vogue—just as crafty as that British acid jazz movement of the past decade—for all kinds of contemporary French balladeers who've been inspired by Gypsy and African Arab melodies. And I predict that small American labels will be licensing and promoting them, often from artist-owned virtual imprints on the Internet.

Coco Lee follows in Ricky Martin's footsteps.
photo: Torkil Gudnason
Coco Lee follows in Ricky Martin's footsteps.

Since Caruso and other foreign opera stars sold countless records in this country during the first half of the 20th century, we know that language is no real obstacle. And given how many r&b, rap, and reggae records American whites have spent money on in the second half of this century, we know that race is no obstacle, either. The Net and desktop manufacturing are making the average American kid a true citizen of the world—stimulating his appetite for new things and (more importantly) new faces. So with dozens of domestic rosters to fill, plus ever cheaper marketing and distribution tools, the next Beatles-like phenomenon could very well emerge from Southeast Asia. And via live tours, streaming media, and multilingual Web sites, the American public will eagerly embrace it.

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