The Curmudgeon: Getting Past the Exoticism of Third-World Music

Music Features
The Curmudgeon: Getting Past the Exoticism of Third-World Music

The rara horns of Haiti are long, conical contraptions made from sheet metal—often homemade from coffee or cooking-oil cans—and outfitted with a plastic mouthpiece. A familiar sight in the parades through Port au Prince during Easter Week or other holidays, they are better known for braying enthusiasm than defined melodies.

Thus it was a surprise to hear the all-star Haitian band Lakou Mizik at last month’s Globalfest in New York. The ensemble’s two rara horn players, Peterson “Ti Piti” Joseph and James Carrier, held their three and four-foot-long gray-metal horns to their lips and coaxed real tunes from the challenging instruments. They still had the noisy energy of the street, but they were also playing actual lines.

It was a reminder that North American and European audiences should always try to get beyond the exoticism of third-world music to identify true musical originality and skill. Instead of listening for the typical representative of a foreign music, we should listen for the exceptional artist. Once you listen with that in mind, even if the genre is entirely new to you, it’s surprisingly easy to distinguish the inspired from the merely competent.

There were plenty of both at this year’s Globalfest, which comes to Manhattan’s Webster Hall every January. The venue has a stage on each of its three floors, and each stage has a different act every 90 minutes. Theoretically, if one raced up and down the stairs, one could see a dozen different acts between 7 p.m. and midnight. I managed to see seven.

Lakou Mizik was easily the most exciting of those seven, though Simon Shaheen’s Zafir was a close second. But several of the other acts demonstrated the dangers confronting third-world musicians who try to adapt for first-world audiences.

The Ethiopian septet Fendika, for example, fell into the folkloric trap. The five men and two women were all skilled musicians, dancers and/or singers, but there was a politeness to their presentation, as if the show were designed more for a tourist hotel than a street party. Fendika was trying harder to represent a culture rather than to express themselves.

Mariana Sadovska, by contrast, was trying to escape folklore by fusing traditional Ukrainian songs with electronica. That’s a valid but risky strategy, for first-world audiences are well acquainted with every kind of electronica experiment and are likely to be unimpressed by any but the very best. This one wasn’t.

The Dhol Foundation managed to fall into both the folkloric and electronica traps. Though this Anglo-Punjabi group has been a leader of London’s bhangra music movement and has often collaborated with Peter Gabriel, they were underwhelming on their own. The four costumed percussionists with the barrel-like dhol drums strapped across their front danced as they played, backed by a Brit-rock power trio. The vocals were pre-recorded, always a big disappointment in a live show, always symptomatic of bands unsure that their own playing is sufficient.

One should always be wary of fusions between first-world and third-world musics. Sometimes it’s done for the right reasons with wonderful results, but too often the motives are money or hipness rather than great music.

By contrast, a terrific example of a fusion prompted by musical motivation is Simon Shaheen’s Zafir. Shaheen, an Arab Israeli now based in the U.S., is a virtuoso on the North African oud. He is not the first to recognize the common elements in Africa’s Islamic music and the flamenco music of southern Spain, where Andalusia was under Moorish control for centuries.

But no one has brought that connection to life as well as this new group, which supplements Shaheen’s regular chamber-folk octet Qantara with Tunisian singer Sonia M’barek and the flamenco duo of guitarist Juan Pérez Rodríguez and dancer Auxi Fernandez. Zafir is the Arabic word for wind, suggesting the breezes that blow those influences back and forth across the Mediterranean. This is a fusion not of a third-world music with Western pop but of two underground musics with a hidden link.

At Webster Hall, Shaheen’s remarkable solos on his watermelon-shaped instrument were nearly matched by his brother Najib, also on oud, flutist/piper Bassam Saba and Rodriguez. They were obviously applying the principles of jazz improvisation to this traditional music with exhilarating results.

But the set reached a whole other level when the women took over. M’barek sang an Arabic translation of a Francisco Garcia Lorca poem that began slowly and simply with just oud and guitar behind her and slowly and dramatically built to a climax with Rodriguez singing the words in their original Spanish and the whole band swelling the harmony.

Then Fernandez reentered in a black-ruffled, floor-length skirt with her dark hair spilling down her white-lace shawl. As the band established the groove behind her, she lifted the hem of her skirt, flashing her hard-soled shoes in what was not only a very sensual dance but also a virtuoso bit of percussion.

Lakou Mizik (backyard music) has been described as Haiti’s Buena Vista Social Club, but that’s misleading. Though the Haitian group does feature Sanba Zao, a legendary veteran of the island’s racine mizik (roots music) community, the bulk of the lineup is composed of young kids eager to lend their own vision and considerable chops to that tradition. Assembled in the wake of Haiti’s devastating 2010 earthquake, these singers and instrumentalists represent different strands of the island’s music but have gelled into a powerful collective.

Zao, with his graying dreads piled atop his head, began the show by slapping a goat-skin drum and leading the group in the old vodou chants. But when the two younger lead singers, Jonas Attis and Nadine Remy, took over, the show became less of a spiritual ceremony and more of a house party. Backed by a muscular syncopation from the electric guitar, piano accordion, electric bass, snare drum, African drum and the two rara horns, Attis and Remy led the call-and-response French vocals till they reached a dizzying climax. These songs will be released in April on the album Wa Di Yo by Cumbancha Records.

These players, dressed not in costumes but in Saturday-night party clothes, obviously had a firm grasp on the tradition that they were reinventing in front of us, but there was nothing polite or folkloric about the performance. They went at it full-tilt, creating an energy that made it easy to overlook just how skilled and original the playing was. But if one listened closely, as one should, one could tell that this was the right way to bring third-world music to the first.

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