Monday, September 19, 2011

A.R. Rahman and World Music

Why World Music Needs More Recognition

On my recent trip to Jakarta, I met a fellow white traveler who had a sack load of CDs with him. In these days of Mp3s and Ipods, I wondered what he was doing with a back pack full of music CDs. Apparently; he was a fusion artist/producer of sorts but with his fancy watch, expensive gadgets and flashy demeanor, I suspect more of the latter. He was one his way to a recording gig with a Gamelan troupe whose name he didn’t remember! Now Gamelan is Indonesia’s most popular form of local music – an ethnic homegrown percussion based ensemble interlaced with flutes, rebab (spike fiddles), other musical instruments and occasional vocals too. We spoke for the entire duration of the flight but one thing was certain – he was no ‘real’ fusion expert but he was talking world music.

That’s the absurdity with world music. It would be naive to think that anybody sitting in the comfort of their Western home or office enjoying a standard of living absolutely unthinkable for more than half the world's population - could possibly be able to perceive the rest of the world's music properly, let alone understand it, realize it, and enjoy it in its relevant perspective, in its lingo or in its specific forms of expression.

I am not criticizing the good intentions of thousands of people in the western hemisphere - artists, producers and fans alike (and my fellow traveler included) who wish to open their minds to other cultures and experiences. However, we are a long way from some people's idea of world music.

The western attitude, marked for centuries by matchless political, military and cultural barbarism and arrogance towards other cultures, cannot pretend that equal values and interests exist with regard to the planet's countless individual regional cultures simply because one aspect has suddenly been opened up.

I have met world music freaks kitted out with all the latest hi-fi music gadgetry, surrounded by hundreds of CDs, DVDs and Memory drives who listen to African music one minute, Celtic music the next, and then Bollywood style Hindi Indian music and when you talk to them about their musical tastes, you realize that they (at least most of them) don't understand the first thing about the music, that they haven't got a clue about the cultural, geographical or the human background. What is more, lots of greedy producers and desperate record labels are churning out a kind of homogeneous world music by throwing together fragments of different musical cultures and blending them with all the available technology of today's studios.

Multiple Oscar, Grammy and Bafta winner - A.R. Rahman is an archetypal example. Post the extraordinary success of Danny Boyle's Slumdog Millionaire, his varied music produce has been widely heard worldwide but many hardly know anything about him or where he comes from. Many don’t even know that Tamil – his mother tongue or Tamil Cinema (which originally made him popular) do exist! That’s the irony. Perhaps, his inclusion in the Mick Jagger – Dave Stewart’s rock group – Super Heavy is also more for his exotic Indian appeal and his super successful Midas touch than to really bring in a true blue Indian influence.

I don’t mean to be contemptuous but if we are going to be able to truly appreciate the wide variety of music which exists in the world, we should try to forge a deeper understanding of what it is. Listening to live world music can be good start.

Any Music, especially world music should be seen as an inner and outer journey, in which any attempt to approach the various musical genres of the world also has to involve an positive reception of the musicians themselves and the geography and culture he or she belongs to. We are still a long way from achieving that, and it is still far too early—if at all—to talk about music – world music particularly.


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