International Feel

Having recently posted playlists documenting our family quarantine-time jazz and gospel listening favorites, and my own personal extreme fare, it occurred to me that there was one more prominent discrete chunk within our roster of regular spins: international music, with heavy emphasis on the African continent.

In my memorial to the late, great Johnny Clegg, I explained the roots of my love for African music, and how the Scatterlings album by his first group, Juluka, factored into that equation:

While at the Naval Academy in the early ’80s, I made a decision to focus my political science major on African politics. My motivations were not entirely altruistic: I found that it was easier to wait until the last minute to work on papers and projects because so few books about Africa ever got checked out of the Academy’s library, while the Soviet or European or Chinese shelves would be picked clean most of the time. Score one for the lazy man with a keen eye for an angle.

Initial motivations notwithstanding, I actually really got into my African studies, and in parallel, I got deeply interested in African music, and spent much of my paper-writing, reading and studying time listening to it. In those pre-Internet and pre-“World Music” CDs at the Starbucks check-out counter (bleh) days, records and tapes from Africa were still relatively hard to find, and information about all but the most high-profile artists (e.g. Fela Kuti, Manu Dibango, Miriam Makeba, King Sunny Ade, etc.) was scarce. I had an odd hodge-podge of tapes and albums from all over the continent that I played to death for a couple of years, but the global popularity of Scatterlings (which was even reviewed by the likes of Rolling Stone and Spin) opened up new interest in African music, politics and culture that made it easier to access some true gems of the era and beyond, on and on for me up to this day.

My dig at “World Music” in that quote is indicative of my long-standing distaste for that term as a single proper noun, emerging as it did around the time that Paul Simon’s Graceland became a huge hit through its equally huge appropriation of South African popular music. That phrase, when used in the United States, presumes two things that I find objectionable: (1) That the United States is somehow not quite part of the world, and (2) That the world’s music can be meaningfully blocked as a single genre. Even clustering “African Music” (note the capital letters) as a single genre fails on this front, given the immense ranges of styles, languages and instruments deployed in both traditional and modern fare. “African music” is more correct, an adjective-noun combination that leaves open the breadth and depth of experiences to be found therein. It’s simply music from Africa, not a genre into and of itself. Similarly, I use “international music” in lieu of “World Music,” when viewing my song catalog from my perch as an American listener. Yeah, I know that’s subtle, but words matter.

In looking at the most-played songs in our household since the dawn of the dread, and trying to decide which ones qualified as “international music,” the distinctions I made were: (1) Any non-English language music, or (2) Any music produced by artists from or working outside of the United States and the United Kingdom, as those nations’ pop and rock-based musical industries and traditions are so closely knit in most cases as to be legitimately indistinguishable, beyond particular folk traditions, none of which popped up in my dozen most potentially qualifying most-played songs. The top dozen qualifiers of that cut make a pleasing list, including music released as recently as April 2020, and as far back as the late 1950s. There are seven songs by artists from various African nations (including some working elsewhere due to various diasporas), one from Jamaica, one from Japan, one from Denmark, one from Peru and one from Germany.

The songs are delightful and diverse in their own rights, and they also help remind me that what we’re experiencing at home these days doesn’t end at our national boundaries. There’s a world of art and culture out there to be savored, even in the world of hurt in which we find ourselves in these transformational times. Happy spins, in hopes of happier times.

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