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Deconstructing “world music” at the Grammys

15 February 2010 15 February 2010 Tags: , One Comment Print This Post Print This Post

Mamadou Diabaté with his Grammy award for best traditional "world music" album 2010.

The image on the left is that of Mali’s own Mamadou Diabaté. He looks handsome and proud as he poses with his Grammy award for best traditional  “world music” album 2010. Unfortunately, the great majority of e-mails I received about these past awards was not about his win. In the blogosphere, his win was overshadowed by the controversial win by Bela Fleck in the best contemporary “world music” category. More people were e-mailing, telephoning, commenting and chatting about that. The prevailing sentiment was that the best ceedee in that category was “Séya” by Sangaré Oumou. Many felt she was robbed and offered remedies such as creating an African music category or a “world fusion” category. Others felt that the winner should not have been nominated at all.

While it is true that “Séya” was the best African music album of 2009, the Grammy category is officially called “best contemporary world music album”.  Therein lies the problem. The best traditional “world music” album category illustrates the dilemma even more clearly. The five nominees this year all represented  different countries [Mali, Ireland, Iraq/India, Cuba, Taiwan] and genres. This was worse than comparing apples to oranges. It was more like comparing mangoes to potatoes to chicken vindaloo to sugarcane to lychees and deciding which is the best. This is absurd and stupid in the extreme. The “world music” category is the only one to be saddled with such a conundrum. For a contrast, let’s look at the music in the reggae category for example. All the albums in this category are instantly recognisable as reggae by uniformly containing typical sonic elements of the genre that is universally recognised and agreed upon as being part of the genre.  The same goes for zydeco, classical, Hawaiian, native American, gospel, et cetera.

I was sent the Bela Fleck ceedee when it was released and I never played it on my show. I instantly recognised it for the calculating piece of commerce that it was and my visceral reaction to it was on target. When it was nominated I was not surprised and I knew the fix was in. In fact, on December 3rd, I sent an e-mail to friends predicting that he would win. Let us remember that the “world music” category was created in 1991 by white Americans, not exclusively for the benefit of musicians in Africa or Asia or south America. They created it to be included in an exciting movement in which they were not the principal proponents. All through the eighties, an exotic sound was coming to America from Africa and other parts of the world.  It was a movement that began with Babatundé Olatunji in the 50s and continued with Miriam Makéba, Hugh Masékéla, Manu Dibango, Osibisa and Féla Kuti in the decades to follow.

Oumu Sangare on SEYA Album

It seems to me that it was in the 80s that the quantity of music available and the number of musicians touring America reached a critical mass that could not be ignored. Names like Youssou, Salif, Angélique, Baaba, Ravi, Gilberto, Jorge, Lucky, Touré Kounda, Ladysmith Black Mambazo and more became part of the consciousness of hip urban whites. Enterprising white American enthusiasts decided to give the the new music the recognition it deserved by pushing for a category at the Grammy awards. The catch was that the category would include the people who helped to create it. It’s no surprise that the contemporary “world music” category is usually dominated by African acts, with three or four nominations almost every year. It’s also no surprise that white musicians get nominated in this category. Remember, they created it, and not just for the rest of the world. Let’s look at the history.

The first Grammy for “world music” was awarded to Micky Hart. Don’t know him? He’s the drummer for the band the Grateful Dead. How did he get into drumming? Hart became interested in percussion as a grade-school student. His father owned a musical instrument store. Nigerian drummer Babatundé Olatunji performed at schools around the country in the late 1950s and had the students try out the drums. Hart had been one of those students and he never forgot the experience. Olatunji regularly performed with the Grateful Dead and he continued to teach Hart some African drumming skills. Hart recorded and produced the album “Planet Drum” in 1991. In 1992, it won the Grammy in the newly instituted “world music” category. Was it mere coincidence that Hart was one of the people who lobbied NARAS to create this new category? The musicians on “Planet Drum” included an array of percussionists from India, Brasil, Puerto Rico and Nigeria. Olatunji was one of them but it was Hart who got the Grammy.

In 1994 Ry Cooder won with the Indian slide guitarist; V. M. Bhatt. The next year, he won again with Ali Farka Touré. In 1996, two white French producers with their group; Deep Forest, remixed traditional songs from central African ethnic groups and won. They were never heard from again.

In 2004, the category was subdivided into contemporary and traditional “world music”. In 2009, Hart won again for “Global Drum Project” in the contemporary category. I guess he succumbed to guilt this time around because he included the names of three other drummers on the album cover so they all won the award. All three; Giovanni Hidalgo, Sikiru Adepoju and Zakir Houssein, were performers on Hart’s first award winning drum project in 1991. This year of course, Bela Fleck won. The music on the album was played by musicians Bela recorded in east and west Africa. Ironically, one of the singers on the album was Sangaré Oumou. Fleck has benefited from African culture in another way. He plays the banjo, an instrument that music historians have acknowledged to be an invention of the enslaved Africans in America. It is based on African models that they had remembered. Before music was recorded in America, banjos and fiddles were the primary instruments of enslaved Africans.

These were instruments that were facsimiles of ones left behind in Africa. The banjo especially, fell out of favour with Africans here with the rise of whites in blackface, mocking, imitating and stigmatising them. It became so rare among Africans that lay people today might think that Africa had nothing to do with this instrument at all. Even a historical painting by the great African-American artist; Henry Ossawa Tanner would seem reactionary in this context whereas, it portrays a quotidian event back then. So here’s what an analysis of these facts tell us; white musicians can not win in the “world music” categories without being taught by African musicians, or without pairing with an  African or Indian musician or without using superior African musicians to record on their projects and then billing said album as a solo project with their name only emblazoned on the cover.

The Old Plantation. Anonymous folk painting, South Carolina, c.1777-1794. (The Abbey Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum, Colonial Williamsburg, VA)

The biggest beneficiary of this cultural appropriation was of course, Paul Simon. His ceedee was not even nominated in the world music category, no. It got the top prize; album of the year. It sold millions of copies and it says a lot about a population who would buy what they think as African music by a white American, more than the music of the people who performed on the album and whose rhythms and melodies made up the basis of the album. I am reminded of a question an acquaintance of mine asked out loud after a conversation we had on this topic; “Do white people have their own culture?”.

African music, as a product, is as vulnerable to exploitation and theft as any of our other resources such as gold, diamonds, uranium, coltan, statues, obelisks, kenté cloth, bauxite, copper et cetera, et cetera. The history of the last two centuries shows that the musical creations of Africans in America have always been open for exploitation and appropriation. Beginning with the banjo.

This year, the critics have said that the best jazz album was by an Indian. Jazz; a genre created by Africans in New Orleans. I’m sure that African-Americans have not abandoned the genre they created and christened blues. The blues; a sadness borne from the dehumanisation and degradation of the African in this country living under chattel slavery and Jim Crow. It’s so specific to a people’s historical experience, I can not imagine any other people having the gall to approach it. But, have you noticed the number of white female blues artists being promoted recently? Amazing! I always wonder, how can they authentically sing about such pain when they have not experienced it. I’m open to having it explained to me. Let’s not forget rock and roll. Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, Little Richard and others who laid the foundation for this genre but the glory goes to Elvis, the Beatles, Led Zeppelin.

The Banjo Lesson by Henry Ossawa Tanner

With rap, they tried and failed with Vanilla Ice and Eminem. The negativity connected with the genre is just a little too revolting for any wholehearted attempt to be made. As for gospel, the form is integral to the African manner of worshipping. For whites, replicating this authenticity might be a bridge too far. And now too, white musicians are turning their sights on African musical forms outside of America. They haven’t exactly taken over reggae but Matisyahou is their messiah and who knows if his young followers will come to believe that he invented the genre. The labels that release the products of Andy Narell dub him the king of the steel pan, insulting all those virtuoso artists past and present from the country where this instrument was invented. Incidentally, Narrell has recorded two albums with Bela Fleck and one can only assume that they have a meeting of the minds on this issue. Of course, as we have seen, the continental music legacy is also open for picking.

The examples of Paul Simon, Bela Fleck and Mickey Hart have enriched them and brought them glory but that has not created a mass movement of people influenced by the example. It is Féla Kuti and his afrobeat alloy that have done that. The growing number of whites who have formed groups to dedicate themselves to play this genre is remarkable. Ezra Gale is one of the young whites who was influenced by Féla Kuti. He recently wrote an article in rebuttal to a negative New York Times review of the Broadway musical “Féla”. In the article [published on afrobeatradio.net,] Ezra explains his love for afrobeat in a way that makes one see how natural and human this can be, taking the reader out of seeing the issue through a prism of skepticism.

Still, I do wonder why African culture is so easily accessible and why the reverse is not so. There is a sprinkling of Africans practicing white music like opera but none that I know of is singing and making a living or a glory out of ragas, Irish ballads, French chanson, Scandinavian folk songs or Jewish wedding songs. None that I know of has led a mass movement to remake the bagpipe or the koto into their own. I do wonder why, and why not. African people, especially in America, seem to like their own music above all others and when other people colonise it, they make the mistake of abandoning it and moving on to create something else. I get the feeling that they are just tired that whites are always moving in on their stuff and I would not be surprised if that reaction is seen on the continent in future.

Back to the Grammy awards and Bela Fleck. As I have said, I never played the ceedee on my radio shows and I do not even know what the music sounds like. From the time it was released to the Grammy win, reviewers have mostly lauded it. The common sentiment of people who weren’t swayed was that Fleck recorded an album with superior musicians who he accompanied by plinking and twanging away with his banjo in a supporting role. Live on stage, I heard that he was blown away by the virtuoso performances of Diabaté Toumani and others.

The Akontingo/Banjo Collaborative

So yes, I do agree that the Grammy needs a category for African music with very specifically defined rules for ceedees to be considered. It’s fine for whites to latch on to the exciting music that Africans create. As Ezra Gale avowed in his article, when his group Aphrodesia toured west African, the people were happy and proud to see a  group of white Americans on stage who took the time to learn their music and displayed a genuine love for it and the creator of it. However, I doubt that they will be as happy if important and influential institutions like NARAS were to nominate and award a Grammy to a white American afrobeat group over Féla, or his sons. Such an imprimatur would imply that the white group was better than. Even though the category was best contemporary “world music” album, Bela Fleck and his record company promoted the album as an African album with African music competing against the other nominees who were real African musicians.

By giving Fleck the win, the institution is saying that this white guy is a better African musician than the other nominees, even though he is outclassed by the musicians he used to record the album which, ironically,  included one of the other nominees. African artists too have now got to beware white artists coming to Africa to record “collaborations”. If the institutions single these out for awards, it says too that African music is better when whites put their hands in it. African musicians must also negotiate harder deals with whites coming to Africa to record. They must demand to be equally billed or they must demand to be produced as solo artists, without the producer insinuating themselves as a co-artist. If there is no creation of a severely defined African category,  I could well see the day when Vampire Weekend will be nominated in the contemporary “world music” category and beat greats such as Salif, Oumou, Khaled, Tiken Jah, Aster, King Sunny,  Culture Musical Club and others who have so far been snubbed by the institution.

Written by Akenataa Hammagaadji.
Akenaata Hammagaadji is an African music expert and cultural critic. He is the radio host of First World Music; an African music programme broadcast from WVKR. His insightful music reviews, which goes beyond music into cultural dissections, can be found in his weekly First World Music Newsletter, now a blog on afrobeatradio.net

One Comment »

  • Carla said:

    Nice articulate article that is very much needed!!

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