Walkabout between Muzak and Esperanto

October 8, 1999

Songlines , which has now published three issues, comes with a lineage that combines the now-august Gramophone and the much younger-spirited Rough Guide to World Music . This relatively new publication reflects a growing need for information, and it offers a comprehensive and expert service to anyone interested in exploring "world music" and yet bewildered by the vast amount of CDs available, from Tuvan throat singing to Balkan Sephardic music, and from Finnish tango to polyphonic chants from Sardinia - not to mention the many African and Latin American recordings that have been around for some years now.

The term world music is inevitably slightly vague and perhaps inappropriate. Almost 20 years ago, a group of journalists, independent record-company executives, concert promoters and other aficionados gathered at an Islington pub to discuss ways of marketing - and therefore labelling - the music they loved so much. The terms in use at the time included: "folk", with its aura of brown sandals, beards and singalongs; "ethnic", with its anthropological flavour as well as a pejorative association with hippie fashion; the politically correct "multicultural"; the slightly Germanic "worldbeat"; the relatively new "roots", earth-friendly and nostalgic for place; and "traditional", which was inevitably rather too broad.

Music lovers in Europe and North America have shown an interest in musical traditions other than their own for more than 100 years - indeed, most composers in the classical tradition have been borrowing from popular idioms for much longer. But in the early 1980s, there was a shift from highly specialist or almost random curiosity to a more driven search for alternatives to rock, a popular music genre that was showing signs of creative stasis as well as the destructive influence of music-industry priorities. Fashion played a part in this process, as well as a yearning for the exotic, but most of all there was the sudden discovery of parallel musical universes that could be sampled and enjoyed, even if not fully understood.

"World music" as a term was not invented at the Islington pub that day, but fairly unanimously adopted as the lesser evil to describe a wide range of genres and styles, some fiercely traditional or purist in their intentions, others adventurously or opportunistically combining elements drawn widely from different cultures. But why, some argued - and continue to argue - are blues, jazz, Philip Glass, Ennio Morricone or Stockhausen not world music? How and where are boundaries drawn and do the categories not presuppose some rather dubious distinctions or forms of exclusion? Do you have to be musically illiterate (that is, part of an oral transmitted tradition) to be part of "world music"; be something other than European or white; wear lederhosen or some other form of native costume; or be in some recognisable sense "ethnic"? The much-favoured term "roots" has some disturbing connotations, not least because of a not entirely spurious connection to " Blut und Boden ", the national socialist slogan for the blood and earth from which the "folk" drew its vital strength.

Curiously, The Rough Guide to World Music , which Songlines editor Simon Broughton co-edits, includes gospel, blues, zydeco and reggae, but not jazz or soul. That is understandable as there are good guides to the last two genres, but nevertheless puzzling. Songlines , on the other hand, seems to be steering a more consistent course, defining its territory as much as possible in terms of rootedness in local traditions, and the CD reviews are classified according to regions and continents.

Until the advent of Songlines , armchair music explorers had to rely on occasional reviews in the national press and specialist music magazines. The only reasonably comprehensive coverage of world music was to be found in Folk Roots, the British pioneer in the field, and far less slick than the almost-glossy Songlines , but always characterised by undisguised passion for the music, and a nose for out-of-the-way people and stories. Songlines is more predictable and more clearly linked to the output of the music industry. This editorial choice makes sense in terms of advertising, and it provides readers with a guide to new CD releases. With more than 100 CD reviews in each issue, the magazine shows its debt to Gramophone , although the style is quite different.

Songlines is very well designed and always a pleasure to look at. There are plenty of photographs, mostly well researched, although occasionally astonishingly inappropriate: in an otherwise excellent feature on Algerian rai, an agency picture of battleships at the Mers-el-Kebir naval base is captioned with the line "urban misery: poverty and suffering in the inner cities have been key contributors to the sound of rai".

Most of the writers on the magazine have a background in music journalism or writing, instrumental playing, ethnomusicology or specialist concert promotion. But there is a surprising paucity of contributors from cultures other than our own. With only a few notable exceptions, the magazine is a westerners' (and almost exclusively British) view of the world. All the writers are enthusiastic about their subject, and most are clearly chosen because of their expertise. It is a pity though that the editors have not seen fit to include "notes on the contributors" (some of whom are academics), as smany are interesting in their own right.

The range of advertisements for rare CD releases and obscure small labels that grace many pages of the magazine is fascinating and enticing. Songlines is perhaps first and foremost about shopping, and it is difficult to put down without being gripped by the desire to explore the music of some long-dead Turkish oud player or a collection of Cuban son classics from the 1940s and '50s. The magazine also includes copious details on mail-order sources and distributors as well as features on specialist labels. The CD reviews, although they inevitably seem to rely on a recurring vocabulary of words

such as "adventure", "exploration" or "experience", certainly deliver most of the basic information and critical opinion the seeker and consumer might require.

Songlines is not, however, just a review magazine: each issue has focused on a specific instrumental tradition: the sitar, the mbira and the shakuhachi. In each case the feature has been written by a player, in the case of the sitar by Anoushka Shankar, Ravi's 18-year-old daughter. While these players provide an insider's knowledge to the challenges met on the way to mastery - Anoushka is eloquent on spinal problems and deeply cut fingers - they sometimes betray a lack of expertise on their chosen instrument's cultural context.

The magazine has also published in-depth accounts of the Cuban son tradition, which would provide fascinating reading for anyone wishing to explore the background to the bestseller Buena Vista Social Club ; a feature on rai, the music that speaks so loudly for those young Algerians who would rather not become fundamentalists; and an article on the Balinese gamelan, exemplary in the clarity with which the author presents a rich and complex living tradition. It is a pity though - and perhaps indicative of the magazine's tendency to be drawn to what is perceived as unadulterated, genuine and untainted by western influence - that no mention is made of the curious and well-documented symbiosis between Bali's artists and the tourist industry: village traditions are threatened by the encroachment of tourism and the demand for packaged rituals ("shorter than the real thing, please, and not in the middle of the night!"), and yet they survive in large part because of fees earned for "sanitised" performances at western-style hotels.

The problem with Songlines is that it is dealing with cultural phenomena that have, perhaps more than any others this century, been the victim of commodification. Of course, the Songlines team know very well that wedding music belongs at a wedding ceremony rather than on a CD, and that trance music may lose its essence if the listener is not possessed. The recorded product is better than nothing, but it can only hint at the whole from which it is prised. As one of the magazine's contributors writes in a review of an African drumming CD, "one only longs to complete the experience by seeing the dancers and perhaps joining in". This longing encapsulates some of the desire that drives a culture dominated by material considerations and the cult of the individual, as well as out of touch with (and in many cases disdainful of) its traditions. Audiences "join in" vicariously at world-music festivals and concerts, or backpack their way back to an exotic world that is bound to elude them. In the end, there is only shopping, and that is bound to leave the consumer feeling a little empty and wanting more.

The inescapable tragedy of a world that produces Songlines is that the very existence of so many world-music CDs reflects or even possibly implies the fast disappearance of cultures that originally produced such diversity. There is an old English folk song that laments the building of a road to a previously remote village, because it is bound to take the singer's lover far away from home. The age of jet travel, mass communication and the internet threatens, on one level, many things we cherish in the West, and most of Songlines 's readers probably feel that menace keenly. Cross-cultural mixing can be very creative, as when Baaba Maal hires an Irish piper, or Ravi Shankar writes for Rostropovich, but it can also produce terrible mismatches as well as a watered-down culture of world music, something with a depressing hint of both Muzak and Esperanto. There is a fundamental difference between a world that does a lot of shopping and one that believes that live music is an essential component to every important event in life - as well as connected to a world of spirits and gods. Perhaps this is only marginal to the value of Songlines , but it is worth bearing in mind, not least because of the magazine's identification with the subject of Bruce Chatwin's marvellous book of the same name: the "songlines" of native Australia were much more than the soundtrack for a walk through the bush. As a way of affirming the unity of spirit, song, time, place, humanity and nature, they do not resemble anything that might fulfil a similarly cohesive role in our doubt-ridden,

travel-crazy global village. Having said that, for all those whose yearnings are in part fulfilled by sampling something of the world's rich traditions, as well as tuning into the best recorded music from around the world, Songlines is an excellent and unmatched buy.

Mark Kidel is a film-maker and writer. He is making a feature-length film about Alfred Brendel and preparing a film about Ravi Shankar.


Songlines: Journeys in World Music
(four times a year)

Editor - Simon Broughton
ISBN - ISSN 1464 8113
Publisher - Gramophone Publications
Price - £11.80
Pages - -

to read this article.

Register to continue

Get a month's unlimited access to THE content online. Just register and complete your career summary.

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments