Category Archives: International and Fusion

Reggae Is Weirder Than You Think, Part II: Why Reggae Isn’t ‘World Music’

After I posted Part I of Reggae Is Weirder Than You Think, I had a few people say to me that it seemed really strange to them to think of reggae as ‘world music’, because it was just music that was part of their upbringing and as ‘normal’ as rock’n’roll. Well, that was kind of my point – reggae is ‘world music’, if by that we mean a genre of music that doesn’t have its roots in the Euro-American rock/pop or classical traditions, but we tend not to think of it this way and it might seem strange to do so. In Part I I argued for why I think we could think of reggae as ‘world music’ (whether we should think of it this way is for another time) – in Part II I’m going to suggest some of the reasons why we don’t think of it this way.

The main reason reggae doesn’t seem like ‘world music’ is, I think, a single person – Bob Marley. It annoys me when people talk about the man when they mean the band – even after Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer left, the band were called ‘Bob Marley and the Wailers’, not just ‘Bob Marley’ – but in the case of what helped reggae spread around the world, I definitely mean Bob Marley himself. The Wailers are, it goes without saying, the world’s most successful reggae band, and in terms of sales they’re more comparable to rock bands than to any of their reggae contemporaries. The story of how exactly The Wailers, or Bob Marley and the Wailers, became quite so successful in Euro-America, is a long one that more knowledgeable people than me have written about, but essentially, a combination of factors, such as the fact that they played their own instruments and so fitted into the Euro-American rock press’ idea of what a ‘band’ should be, along with the serious financial push that Island Records were able to give them, meant that the Wailers were able to succeed as a mainstream reggae band – or rather, a mainstream band who happened to play a ‘third world’ genre of music called ‘reggae’. Their success, catchy songs and Bob’s star charisma mean that the Wailers have pretty much become synonymous with reggae in many people’s minds. One of the reasons reggae has stuck around in the mainstream consciousness, unlike some other genres, is the enduring star power and fame of Bob, coupled, it must be admitted, with the fact that he wrote some great pop songs. You can, in the UK at least, still hear Wailers songs played during the daytime on middle-of-the-road radio stations like Radio 2 or Smooth FM; you don’t hear other ‘foreign’ singers like Miriam Makeba or Serge Gainsbourg, despite the fact that they had songs which were big hits in the Anglosphere too. This is kind of amazing considering that many of the Wailers’ songs include explicit references to Rasta theology – think of ‘Get Up, Stand Up’s “We know and understand/Almighty God is a living man” –  or that even the titles are in patois that is difficult for middle-class British people to understand. (I know several people who thought ‘No Woman No Cry’ meant something like ‘if you don’t have a woman you won’t be upset’.) Bob Marley has remained an icon in Euro-America in a way that very few other non-Euro-American singers have. This cements reggae as ‘pop music’ in many people’s minds: Bob is familiar, therefore reggae is familiar, therefore reggae must be part of ‘normal’ rock/pop music. How could one of the world’s biggest pop stars play ‘world music’?

From the Wailers’ very early days as a ska band. Look how young they all look!

It’s worth realising as well that Bob Marley genuinely is one of the world’s biggest pop stars. He’s one of the most famous musicians of the twentieth century, famous in the same way as Elvis, the Beatles, Oum Kalsoum and… well, that’s probably about it. Think how many different products you can buy with Bob’s face on them. He is, still, known all over the world, and remains an absolute hero to many people. The Wailers’ songs about fighting for freedom have ensured that the band have been taken to the hearts of many groups of people who see themselves as suffering from oppression, and their performance to celebrate Zimbabwean independence in 1980 cemented the band’s, especially charismatic central figure Bob’s, image as revolutionaries. Rather than just a musician, Bob Marley is seen as a revolutionary hero, “a poet and a prophet” to quote a (gulp) Red Hot Chili Peppers song. The popularity of reggae in West Africa, and amongst Australian Aborigines and First Nations people in North America is linked to Marley’s image as a ‘sufferer’, a rebel and a freedom fighter. I recently heard a lesbian Maori/Samoan woman who works for a women’s refuge give a talk (long story), and she claimed that Bob Marley was a personal hero of hers, and seen as a figurehead to Maori women in “the struggle”, i.e. the feminist movement in Aotearoa (notwithstanding Bob’s own relationships with women, presumably). It’s difficult to overestimate how well-known and how loved Bob Marley is all over the world, meaning that reggae continues to be known worldwide too.

No sane person ever needs to hear any of the songs on ‘Legend’ ever again, but come on – they couldn’t half write songs

This is a bit of a reductive argument, but I think Marley is the main reason reggae has remained in the mainstream consciousness. This is reflected in the fact that pretty much everyone knows what reggae is, despite the fact that the genre nowadays is as far away from the mainstream, international pop charts as any other genre of world music. How many contemporary reggae singers or deejays could the person on the street name, except maybe Sean Paul, whose career began back in the late nineties? The version of ‘reggae’ that exists as ‘not world music’ in most people’s minds is late ‘70s roots reggae – maybe extending to the tail-end of ska and the early style of reggae featured on the ‘The Harder They Come’ soundtrack. Reggae being produced in Jamaica was actually only internationally successful for a relatively brief period, and it’s an ossified version of this that remains most people’s definition of the term. Even many latter-day international reggae stars, like Côte d’Ivoire’s Alpha Blondy or Tiken Jah Fakoly, or the many Aboriginal bands that play reggae, play in an essentially anachronistic style that doesn’t even account for the digital reggae revolution of the early ‘80s, let alone anything more recent. In the UK in particular, I think late-‘70s reggae remains in the mainstream consciousness largely due to punk nostalgia.

People of a certain age love to wax lyrical about how amazing it was to be around in the late ‘70s when punk was a big deal, although very few of these people, in my experience at least, seem to have taken the supposed anti-establishment ideals of punk to heart. In any case, punk nostalgia is big business, and so the supposed connection between punk and reggae is often brought up in discussions of how you just had to be there at the time, man. It’s always seemed to me like the punk-reggae connection has been slightly overstated in retrospect; yes, bands from the two genres toured together, and yes there was some mutual admiration (John Lydon was well into his reggae, while the Wailers sung ‘Punky Reggae Party’), but the only band I can think of from the time who really musically synthesised the two was The Clash. And let’s be honest, some of The Clash’s attempts at reggae were pretty ropey. ‘White Man In Hammersmith Palais’ and ‘The Guns of Brixton’ are bloody brilliant, but ‘Revolution Rock’ really isn’t.

Anyway, I mean that punk/reggae bands who were around in the late ‘70s didn’t really musically mix styles, because since then the idea that punk and reggae are linked has become a kind of article of faith, and so they have become linked – on the punk side at least; not many dancehall deejays toasted over versions of Exploited singles. This lead to unlikely combinations, such as the uniquely British subgenre of Two Tone, and the amazing Bad Brains from Washington DC, a Rasta funk-turned-punk band who occasionally stopped playing light-speed hardcore punk to play regressive and fairly unimaginative reggae.  Such fusions are nearly always slightly retrograde, if not nostalgic: Two Tone was, to begin with, largely based around appropriation of decade-old Jamaican records, although at least Two Tone bands knew there was more to Jamaican music than roots reggae and slightly expanded the mainstream awareness of ska. Bad Brains meanwhile were playing songs with titles like ‘I Love I Jah’ just as roots reggae was on its way out. The ‘punks should like reggae’ orthodoxy perhaps reaches its apogee in the US punk band Rancid, who take The Clash as their model for everything and so, on an album released in 1994, sang about how much they loved reggae and proved it by namechecking Desmond Dekker, who’d had his biggest hits more than 20 years earlier. No Shabba Ranks, Buju Banton or Bounty Killer for them!

To try to stem a flood of hate-filled comments from tr00 punx, I should say I do have a fondness for Rancid, despite all their flaws; I like The Specials, although most Two Tone music I’ve heard is annoyingly cheery and – sorry to sound like a genre snob – less enjoyable than real ska; Bad Brains are (mostly) awesome, and so are The Clash. My point is, though, that punk is largely a musically conservative genre, the way people think about punk is largely conservative (with a small ‘c’, punx, don’t worry!), and both of these have been responsible for freezing (a particular version of) reggae in non-reggae fans’ minds – which means that we tend to think about it in terms of rock music, not world music.

The thing is, this freezing of what ‘reggae’ means – what reggae sounded like in the ‘70s – in people’s minds is particularly odd in Britain, which is easily reggae’s second home after Jamaica. The history of British reggae is a story of how the music of immigrants more or less developed into its own genre in a new country, much like British Asian music.  While British reggae has more or less followed the same trajectory as Jamaican reggae, from roots reggae to ragga deejays to a revival of ‘consciousness’, there have been British innovations, like the subgenre of lovers’ rock and the persistent interest in ‘steppers’ songs, roots and thunderously loud dub while these subgenres were out of fashion in Jamaica.

Classic lovers’ rock  from the ’90s

These differences mean that UK reggae has provided something like an alternative history of reggae, a different way in which the genre could have developed after roots reggae faded from popularity in Jamaica. Moreover, reggae in the UK has hugely influenced the growth of other genres of specifically British dance music like jungle, drum’n’bass, UK garage, grime and dubstep. The rise and fall of these genres in the mainstream, along with the large populations of Jamaican descent in Britain, have meant that mainstream awareness of reggae in Britain has been sustained. As it is now, reggae remains, much like British Asian music (or heavy metal or punk, I suppose), at a tangent to the mainstream, rarely heard in the mainstream media but able to attract thousands of fans to big gigs or festivals. I’m sure that if you walk through certain parts of the West Midlands or London you’re still more likely to hear reggae than any other type of music.

There is a definite claim then that reggae is a firmly British style of music, whose development has roots in Britain almost as much as in Jamaica. How, then, can we think of it as ‘world music’ when it’s completely ‘normal’ and intrinsically British? Well, for exactly the reasons I argued in Part I. The Britishness of reggae doesn’t change anything about why we could think of it as world music. It still has its origins outside Euro-American pop/rock, whether or not subsequent developments has meant there’s some crossover. And the idea that just because something is British we shouldn’t include it in ‘world music’ is silly, unless we’re going to make some absolute, objective scale of what is ‘foreign’ and what isn’t. The folk music of the British Isles is ‘world’, bhangra and the ‘Asian Overground’ are ‘world’ and so is reggae.

I’ve probably gone on long enough for now. I wanted to talk about the ways in which we think about certain other types of music, to compare them to the way we think about reggae, but maybe I’ll save that for another time. Part III coming up later then, but for now, here’s more proof that there’s far, far more to British reggae than UB40 and Aswad – the best hymn to veganism I know of:

Reggae is Weirder Than You Think, Part I: Reggae as World Music

Reggae is usually thought of as part of the rock/pop canon. For example, Q magazine – a UK mainstream rock magazine, whose cover stars include the likes of Coldplay, U2 or Kings of Leon – did a ‘guide to the ultimate music collection’ issue a few years ago. The buyer’s guide was split into genres, which a top 10 albums and top 50 songs for each genre. Reggae got its own section, alongside hiphop, rock, metal, pop and electronic music, meaning ten reggae albums and fifty reggae songs were listed by a mainstream rock magazine as among the music you simply must own if you know anything about music at all. Compare this to their ‘folk’ section, which included only five albums – by Woody Guthrie, Fairport Convention, Nick Drake and, um, Devandra Banhart and Joni Mitchell. There was no generic ‘world music’ section or anything like it. Admittedly this is only one example from one shitty magazine, but it shows how much reggae, a genre of music still intimately linked to a Caribbean island with a relatively small population, is understood as simply another part of the rock/pop umbrella – ironically, more than the UK or USA’s own folk music.

 


Q Magazine did include this in their picks though, so they’re not complete idiots.

 

All Euro-American rock/pop music shares a common lineage from gospel, the blues and early R&B. From these common roots come subgenres of rock/pop as varied as boyband pop, indie rock, funk and hardcore punk. Reggae seems so familiar that we usually think of it as no more foreign to mainstream music than other ‘alternative’ strands of rock/pop like hiphop or metal. Hiphop developed out of funk and disco in 1970s New York, and heavy metal grew out of the British Midlands’ blues-rock scene in the late 1960s. From those beginnings, hiphop and metal have spread all over the world; their influence can be seen in all sorts of other genres of pop music, there are rappers in Nairobi and Nuuk, and metal bands in Sao Paolo and Tokyo. Reggae has achieved similar global reach: bands and singers from the UK to Côte d’Ivoire have attempted a ‘real’ reggae sound, and plenty of other bands have been influenced by reggae and incorporated elements of its sound into their own genres. We take it for granted that reggae is as much a part of the world’s musical landscape as hiphop or metal.

But let’s put this in some perspective. Reggae remains synonymous with Jamaica, a small island in the Caribbean with a population of about four million, to an even greater degree to hiphop’s connection to the USA, and certainly more than metal is connected to any particular country. The continued linkage is from the fact that reggae grew out of specifically Jamaican styles of music in the early 1960s, and remains the music of Jamaica in the way that son is for Cuba, or merengue is for the Dominican Republic; most of the musical innovations in those countries take that particular rhythm as the basis. (Incidentally, reggae, like merengue or Haiti’s compas, is a rhythm, as well as a genre of music, which is why lots of quite different-sounding music can still be called reggae, and simultaneously why idiots like to say ‘all reggae sounds the same’ – the basic rhythm used is the same.) In spite of this, reggae has spread all over the globe. We’re now so used to what reggae sounds like that we don’t realise how weird it is that this specifically Caribbean rhythm has become so familiar to so much of the world. Can you imagine high-street record shops or mainstream music magazines having sections on merengue or compas, in the sort of position reggae holds? (Forgive my out-of-date references, but you can change iTunes genre tags however you like, so it’s not quite the same.)

 

 

Reggae was, and remains, a genre of world music. Despite the fact that it usually involves lyrics in English (which tends to be the measure of ‘world music’ – see here), it is a genre which is rooted in a part of the world outside the UK/USA/Australia axis and retains many features which are linked to its island’s culture. Stylistically, reggae is no less a type of world music than is bhangra or Norteño music – both genres which have also grown up in ‘the English-speaking world’.

Reggae developed from several different strands of Jamaican music. Before reggae proper began in the late ‘60s, there was ska and rocksteady. Ska is described in the Rough Guide to World Music as “using fast R&B as the music’s basis, cutting out half the shuffle, leaving an abrupt series of off-beats” – in other words, it a Jamaican musical innovation that was a major contribution to the reggae rhythm. Ska was basically dance music and its success was perhaps linked to the optimism around the time of Jamaica’s independence in 1962. Rocksteady was a different musical style with, in general, less pronounced horn lines and more emphasised bass lines. Rocksteady’s lyrical content was often firmly rooted in the Jamaican experience: it was the music of rudeboys, singing about how tough they were and how crap life was in the shanty towns – I guess it was an equivalent to gangsta rap or hard-edged rock’n’roll records. Both of these genres contributed to the arrival of reggae in the late ‘60s, with the aesthetic and lyrics drawing on the specifically Jamaican rocksteady, and the music influenced by the specifically Jamaican rhythmic innovations made by ska.

 


Probably the most famous rocksteady song, from the classic soundtrack to The Harder They Come

 

Having said that, reggae has always had, and continues to have, links to the USA’s and UK’s musical cultures. In fact, every stage of the story of reggae involves the influence of US or UK music: early sound systems in Jamaica began by playing fast-paced US R&B records, the harmonies of rocksteady and early reggae groups were influenced by soul groups like the Impressions, the change in guitar and bass styles in the 70s probably owes something to funk, and since the 90s, ragga/dancehall and the various types of British ‘urban’ music, from drum’n’bass to grime, have cross-pollinated. But this isn’t unique: there are loads of examples of music from other countries being turned into something different. For example, various different styles of music in Africa have been heavily influenced by Cuban music, from Congolese rumba in the 50s (even the name of the genre comes from Cuba), to the likes of Orchestra Baobab in Senegal in the 70s. Reggae has borrowed a lot from US and UK rock/pop – and of course the influence has gone both ways – but reggae doesn’t have the same ultimate source in gospel and blues that all rock/pop shares.

Going further back than ska and rocksteady, the ultimate wellsprings of reggae are Jamaica’s folk and religious music. Many people point to the folk music style called mento as an important precursor to reggae; it contains the rhythmic seeds of ska and then reggae. Mento is now probably more known than it ever has been, thanks to various compilations that have been released and the continued efforts of mento band The Jolly Boys, who have been around since the 1940s and are still performing – although, unsurprisingly, not in the original incarnation of the band.

 

 

Other folk elements that have contributed to reggae include the various religious musical traditions that exist on the island. The most famous is probably Rastafari music, although only about 13% of Jamaica’s population are Rastas, which is quite surprising to learn when you consider just how many reggae stars have sung about Rastafari themes. Traditional Rasta music includes ceremonies called grounations, which include debate and ‘reasoning’, ganja consumption, Bible reading, hymns, and –most importantly for reggae – the style of drumming called nyahbingi. The influence of this slow, rhythmic drumming can be heard on many reggae records. There doesn’t seem to be a huge amount of traditional Rasta music available, but look out for Count Ossie and His Mystic Revelation of Rastafari – the album below is available for download from the usual places.

 

 

Jamaica is more religiously and musically diverse than is often thought. Other important folk traditions include the music of the Maroons – the original settlements of escaped slaves, who have continued to largely keep themselves to themselves – and various nonconformist Christian groups such as Revival Zion, who have musical traditions that are as far from staid hymn-singing as is the rawest US gospel. Some examples of these various traditions have been recorded by the inimitable Smithsonian Folkways, and the equally reliable Frémeaux et Associés recently released this exciting double CD of archive sounds. While these various traditions are definitely separate from reggae, they demonstrate how, both musically (rhythmically) and aesthetically, reggae is deeply rooted in Jamaican culture, in spite of the influence of US and British music. There’s a lot more examples of this, perhaps the most important being the local use of technology in ‘sound systems’, huge mobile discos which led to the idea of DJs chatting over the records. Eventually these deejays released ‘talkover records’ of their own, which later developed into the tradition of toasting in reggae, examples being the likes of U-Roy, Big Youth and Dr Alimentado above. Reggae was arguably the first music anywhere in the world that was primarily recorded music – deejays didn’t talk over live bands. See also the inventive use of technology that led to dub…

It now seems odd to talk about reggae exclusively with reference to Jamaica, given that some of the biggest reggae artists have come from outside the country – Aswad, UB40 and Steel Pulse from the UK, Lucky Dube from South Africa, Alpha Blondy (who made the amazingly titled album ‘Apartheid is Nazism’) and Tiken Jah Fakoly from Côte d’Ivoire, and so on. The point of my showing that reggae is so specifically Jamaican in its roots, its music and its aesthetic is to show that we can think about it as a type of world music, rooted in local traditions outside Euro-American rock/pop, just like Cuban son, Thai luk thung, Senegalese mbalax or any other type of local music you’d care to mention.

 


Ivorian Muslim reggae, proving that the reggae rhythm has been interpreted in various ways…

 

I think there’s something to be gained from reminding ourselves that reggae is, without doubt, a genre we could call ‘world music’. Putting reggae in its context as a type of Caribbean ‘world music’ allows for a different understanding of the genre, compared to thinking of it as a cousin to ‘70s punk or to early ‘00s hiphop. It also – and I won’t go on about this here; it deserves another post, another time – allows us to appreciate the true diversity of music in the world. Recognising reggae in its specificity, as ‘world music’, allows us to give it a different kind of attention from something that would normally be thought of within the Euro-American rock/pop hegemony. We can recognise reggae as a difference, an otherness, that has become normalised. This in turn allows us to think about other kinds of ‘world music’ in a different way, given how reggae has come to interact with the rock/pop world. Should other types of music aim for such ‘normalisation’? I think this is quite an interesting theoretical issue and I’ll write it more another time (so that you can avoid that post, if you like).

Many people have written about reggae’s history and roots in ska, rocksteady and folk music: if you want to read more, Lloyd Bradley’s book Bass Culture is often recommended. I’d also point you towards The Rough Guide to World Music, as usual, although you’ll need to find the older edition since the newest edition doesn’t include a volume on the Americas (boo hoo!). Also well worth a read is the excellent Rough Guide to Reggae, if you can find a copy; it’s been out of print for ages. I don’t doubt that some of you reading this might know more about reggae than me anyway, so feel free to comment/complain below.

I’ve been arguing that we should think of reggae and its relatives like ska, mento and rocksteady as forms of ‘world music’, but the question that remains is how reggae reached the point where it isn’t thought of in this way, while other similar types of music are thought of as ‘world music’. Tune in next time for Reggae is Weirder Than You Think Part II, where I’ll try to answer that question, and we’ll be discussing that Marley chap, calypso, salsa and why ‘70s punk has a lot to answer for…

 


Alright, it’s dub rather than roots, but I can’t write about reggae without mentioning this – one of my all-time favourites 

I’m on the radio! Listen!

I’ll be on the radio every week for the next month or two at 7-8pm Sunday evenings (UK time). The show is called Travelling Soul and the aim is to play soulful sounding music from around the world and show the similarities and differences, so as well as Sam Cooke, James Brown and Aretha Franklin you’ll hear Celia Cruz, Gilberto Gil, Mohammed Rafi and Orchestre Baobab. Previous themed shows have included ‘Queens of Soul’ and a Bollywood vs. disco special, with planned specials to come including ‘America in Africa/Africa in America’, the greater Caribbean and religious music. Click on to http://www.fusefm.co.uk to listen, and point your browser at http://www.facebook.com/travellingsoulfuse to see playlists, post requests, see videos I share and more.

Not Coming Soon To A Cinema Near You

With Oscars season over for another year, and everybody taking smiley pictures of themselves with their celebrity mates as they celebrate films about slavery, space and the depths of human suffering and terror, I thought it might be fun to imagine which figures might next be picked up on for awards-bait biopics. The Academy loves films which feature a lot of suffering but in the end show the triumph of the human spirit (or something), and there are plenty of musicians who’ve had the sort of lives that would make Walk The Line and Ray look like an episode of Teletubbies.

Of course, there are loads of people I could have picked here. The most obvious candidate is Fela Kuti, but he’s been excluded – mostly because I already mentioned his crazy life here, but also because he soon is to be the subject of a Hollywood film, after the success of the musical Fela! on Broadway and the West End – although the movie isn’t based on the musical. Apparently the original director was going to be man of the moment Steve McQueen– now that would have been something.

Mariam Makeba

I think the only reason Miriam Makeba’s life story hasn’t been made into a big budget movie is that it would have to include some subjects that would be just a bit too touchy for the US – namely the side of the Civil Rights movement that wasn’t Martin Luther King’s peaceful brand of campaigning. Makeba was certainly a big enough star to merit a film – nicknamed ‘Mama Africa’, she’s probably the most famous and popular singer the entire African continent has produced. Born in 1932 in Johannesburg, her mother was arrested for selling homebrew when Miriam was only eighteen days old, so the first six months of the infant Miriam’s life were spent in prison. Her singing career began with the vocal harmony group the Manhattan Brothers in 1954, and she then joined the all-female Skylarks with whom she really made her name. Her fame grew through her role in the ‘jazz opera’ King Kong in 1959, the same year Miriam made an appearance in an anti-apartheid documentary. Touring with the cast of King Kong in the UK, she met Harry Belafonte who helped her gain entry to the USA in 1960.  In 1963 Miriam testified to the UN on the horrors of apartheid, and so she was stripped of her South African citizenship and unable to return to her birth country.

Nevertheless, Miriam’s career went from strength to strength in the US, due to her mega-selling duet album with Belafonte, and re-recordings of her earlier hits like ‘Pata Pata’ and ‘Qongqothwane’ (retitled ‘The Click Song’ for American audiences). In 1968, Miriam married her fourth husband, Stokely Carmichael, one of the leaders of the Black Panthers (her previous husband was one of South Africa’s other great stars, the trumpeter and singer Hugh Masekela). Marrying a Black Panther did not do Miriam’s career any wonders in the US and she was effectively blacklisted. She and her husband thus moved to Guinea, where they became very close for a while with President Seckou Touré, proving that if nothing else, Miriam sure could pick friends who might land her in trouble. In the meantime, she was growing into the figure of Mama Africa, singing in Nairobi at Kenyan independence, in Luanda at Angolan independence, at the Rumble in the Jungle and many other such events. Eventually, she was able to return to South Africa at the personal invitation of Nelson Mandela when he was released from prison. From then on, she continued to perform and to campaign to raise awareness of such issues as HIV and child soldiers. She died after a heart attack suffered during a concert in Italy. Proving that Miriam was a fighter til the end, the concert was to support the writer Roberto Saviano in his campaign against the Camorra.

Recommend album: Despite her star quality and power as a singer, Miriam’s albums are, in general, notoriously patchy. There’s about a bazillion different compilations available, mostly recycling different versions of the same songs she recorded again and again. ‘Best of the Early Years’ is a very good selection of her ‘township jazz’ days, although the liner notes are disappointingly scant. ‘The Guinea Years’ shows how different a later period of her career was, at a time that saw a lot of fantastic music coming out of Guinea, although you’ll have to hunt around to find it on CD.

Esma Redzepova

Esma Redzepova has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize twice and was awarded the title of ‘Queen of the Gypsies’ by Indira Gandhi in 1976 at a Roma festival. She has not lead a boring life. Esma is a Roma singer from Macedonia (although she’s been outspoken about the breaking up of Yugoslavia and the division it has caused), and she has a singing voice like no other. She has been a professional singer since the age of 13, when she was ‘discovered’ by the Macedonian accordion player Stevo Teodosievski, who became her main musical collaborator and husband. At the start of the 1960s Esma and Stevo had a series of big pop hits throughout the Balkans, and they ended up moving to Belgrade. As with so many talented musicians who are co-opted as national icons, Esma ended up serving the needs of a less than savoury politican, as Tito decided Esma and the Ensemble Teodosievski were to be Yugoslavia’s musical representatives abroad.

Once Tito was out of the picture however, and Yugoslavia collapsed, Esma used her fame to campaign to help people as much as possible. She has worked for women’s education, rights for the Roma, inter-ethnic communication and helped persuade the Macedonian government to give refuge to those fleeing ‘ethnic cleansing’ in Kosovo. Esma’s charity begins at home, however. Since the age of thirteen – yes, really – she has been adopting Roma orphans and runaways, and thus now has nearly fifty children. She and Stevo worked to give all of the children an education and music and so, since Stevo’s death in the 1990s, Esma’s band has been composed of her children.

Esma is a national icon for Macedonia, a figure of pride for Roma, and a global star. She has a diplomat’s passport, has been a local councillor in Skopje, and has set up a Roma TV station that ran from the basement of her immense house – a house which has now been turned into a museum, while Esma moved to more modest surroundings. She has lived through difficult times but her generosity and her voice have risen above it all.

Recommended album: Esma is nowhere near as well-represented in album releases in ‘the West’ as she should be, and some of her most acclaimed recordings are on the World Network compilation ‘Gypsy Queens: Flammes de Couer’. I really like her 2007 album ‘Gypsy Carpet’; the young(ish) band are composed of later generations (!) of her children, and they give a real punch to the music. Esma sounds as feisty and full of energy as ever.

Tau Moe

If there’s one of these stories I can imagine actually becoming a movie, it’s this one. The story starts in Hawaii, Hollywood’s go-to ‘exotic’ (but not too foreign) location, and then spans most of the twentieth century before concluding with a rags-to-riches final act.

Born in Samoa in 1908, Tau Moe (pronounced Mo-ay) started playing slide guitar in Hawaii in the 1920s. In 1927, the band Tau had with his uncles was joined by a falsetto singer and dancer called Rose. The band became called Mme Riviere’s Hawaiians, as they were managed by a French professor, and they toured extensively through Asia, from India and Burma to the Phillipines, Japan and Indonesia. Rose and Tau were married and had a son, who was born in Tokyo. After recording a few songs in Tokyo, Mme Riviere’s Hawaiians split up, and Tau, Rose and their son Lani began to play as a trio, while Lani was just five. The trio recorded a few songs in Shanghai, and then gigged around India for a while, before journeying to Egypt, almost penniless. They managed to find work playing music in Egypt’s bigger cities, and travelled throughout the Levant and then into Europe, ending up in Germany. Unfortunately, something called the Second World War began, and so the family soon had to be on the road again.  Arriving in Baghdad, the Moes boarded a ship to finally return to Hawaii – but, through an even worse stroke of luck than the one that had led them to Germany, Pearl Harbour had been bombed just before they arrived! The family turned back and travelled halfway round the world (again) to India. The Moes had a daughter, Dorrian, in 1945, who was soon part of the family band too, dancing and singing. After playing around India for about ten years, the family went back to Europe and stayed there til the end of the 1960s and played many gigs and appeared on TV programmes and in movies, travelling throughout Europe. After still more travelling in Asia, Australia and the USA in the ‘70s, the family band’s five-decade long world tour finally came to an end as they moved back to Tau’s childhood home in Hawaii.

That story would be good enough, but the final chapter is the icing on the cake. In 1986, the American blues guitarist and Hawaiian music expert Bob Brozman (who went to make many excellent cross-cultural collaboration albums) got a letter from Tau ordering one of Brozman’s albums. Brozman, who, as a record collector, owned the only known copy of one of Mme Riviere’s Hawaiian’s recordings, phoned up Moe right away to find out if he was the same Tau Moe who played guitar on that record. “Oh sure!” said Moe. “My wife sang on those records – wanna hear?” Rose then apparently sung that song down the phone to Brozman – “in the same key!” the amazed Brozman wrote. Brozman arranged to meet with the family band a few years later and together they recorded an album recreating, entirely from Tau’s memory, those now-lost recordings from the 1920s and ‘30s – a style of music that, given the Moes’ influences, was already a bit old-fashioned when it was first recorded! Apologies for the quality of the video below; the music shines through all the same.

Recommended album: You can hear some of the 1920s recordings on a compilation called ‘Vintage Hawaiian Music: The Great Singers 1928-1934’, but the pick has to be the album the Moe family recorded by with Bob Brozman, ‘Ho’omana’o I Na Mele O Ka Wa U’i’, or ‘Remembering the Songs of Our Youth’. It has to be one of the most joyous albums you will ever hear; the octogenarian Rose’s voice is incredible, and the slide guitar, courtesy of Tau and Brozman, is just a delight.

Gilberto Gil

Cheating slightly here, as Gil has actually been the subject of (at least) two documentary films, one about the Tropicalismo style of music he pioneered, and a film that came out last year called ‘Viramundo’, where Gil travels around the world and meets various local musicians. Still, I think Gil could merit the biopic treatment too.

Gil did not have radical beginnings. He grew up in a fairly comfortably middle-class family in the south of Brazil, and by his early twenties, he was composing advertising jingles, had moved to Rio, had his own TV show, and his songs were being recorded by big hitters like Sergio Mendes and Elis Regina. Things took a turn however when Gil founded Tropicalismo in 1968 with his friend Caetano Veloso, with the album ‘Tropicalia: ou Panis et Circenses’. Tropicalismo is a blend of various Brazilian regional styles of music – experimental enough in itself – with tricks learned from British and US rock music, and poetic, dense lyrics. It was an exciting time in Brazilian music, with many of the most famous stars just beginning to break through – Maria Bethânia (Caetano’s sister), Gal Costa, Tom Zé, Chico Buarque and so on – and there was an amazing amount of creativeness. Unfortunately, Brazil’s military government weren’t so keen on the radical music which was popular with the youth of the time – who would think it, eh? – and in February 1969, Gil and Veloso were arrested, spending three months in prison and four months under house arrest. Apparently they got off lightly – less famous musicians simply had their tongues cut out. They were freed on the condition they left the country, and they both eventually settled in London. It seems like Gil ended up having a rare old time in the UK, discovering reggae (which had a big influence on his music), helping to organise the 1971 Glastonbury festival, and performing with bands like Yes and Pink Floyd.

Gil was able to return to Brazil in 1972 and has released plenty of albums since, in various different styles. He has also developed a parallel career as a politician. In 1987 he was elected to a local government post in Bahia. He worked in various positions, particularly promoting environmental matters, and in 2003 was chosen to be a cabinet member under President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. As the Minister for Culture, Gil worked on projects like grants to help children from poorer areas learn music, staging big concerts in favelas, and working to create a freely downloadable archive of Brazilian music (although this seems yet to actually materialise). Lula da Silva must have valued Gil, as Gil had to request to step down from his position three times before this was finally accepted. Having dealt with some health issues, Gil continues to make music and serve as an elder statesman for Brazilian culture. He made not be as radical as he once was, but he certainly keeps himself busy.

Recommended album: Given that he’s had such a long and varied career, everyone seems to favour different albums of Gil’s. Some of his earlier albums apparently sound like Zappa-esque noisy rock, while also he’s flirted with reggae, psychadelia, acoustic twiddling and more besides. The album that started so much, ‘Tropicalia’, is now, crazily, out of print, so my pick would be his 1979 album ‘Realce’, where Gil provides his own version of funk and disco. Maybe not as politically serious as some of his other work, but a whole lot of fun.

Various Artists – ‘The Soul of Klezmer’

As strange as it may sound, klezmer music probably has one of the biggest media presences of any form of ‘world music’ – or ‘ethnic minority music’ if you live in the US. In other words, even if you don’t know it, you will have probably heard klezmer. Think about it: TV shows as disparate as Frasier and Futurama have at least one Jewish character, and the episode that sees their bar mitzvah or wedding will feature a klezmer soundtrack. It’s this raucous music that this marvellous compilation celebrates. But it also shows another side to Ashkenazi Jewish music (as opposed to the other Jewish diaspora musics, for example the Sephardic, Ladino-language music of the likes of Yasmin Levy, or the Yemeni Jewish repertoire made famous by Ofra Haza) – the stately, almost mantra-like songs of Hassidic mysticism, pleading for contact with God.

Klezmer is one of the great forms of ‘fusion’ music. The genre name comes from the Yiddish word ‘klezmorim’, meaning a band of amateur musicians for hiring at weddings. That amateur nature is perhaps key to the energy and rough edges of the music. The beginnings of the genre lie in the shtetls of eastern Europe, and the crossover points between klezmer, gypsy music, Turkish military music and other genres have led to some very interesting collaborations and experiments. For example, the Hungarian band Muzsikás (perhaps most famous for their ‘Bartok Album’) appear here, proving a common ground between gypsy and Jewish music. Klezmer evolved into the style we know today once it, and its players, reached the US, when jazz and swing influences crept in. It is here that this compilation comes in, featuring examples of a couple of the greats of the early klezmer scene: Naftule Brandwein and Dave Tarras, both born in the old country, yet both firmly establishing klezmer as an American genre of music, Brandwein’s rugged and rough style contrasting with Tarras’ military band precision.

No surprise that they were both clarinet players. While the violin is a very important instrument in klezmer, and instruments including accordion, dulcimer, mandolin and the human voice also appear on this compilation, it’s those piercing clarinets that reign supreme. Whether plaintive, wailing, screaming or almost seeming to laugh, the one thing klezmer clarinet never is is relaxed.

Another key moment is the ‘klezmer revival’, which began in east-coast USA in the 1970s. The band often claimed to be the movement’s frontrunners were simply called The Klezmorim, and boy could they play – dig this flute!

The ‘90s saw another burst of klezmer creativity, with bands experimenting with subversions of the strict style. As represented on this compilation, they range from the track by the Andy Statman Quartet which features American banjo/mandolin whizzkid Béla Fleck, to Budowitz’s attempt to recreate as nearly as possible the sound of authentic, nineteenth-century European klezmer. The most successful of the lot has to have been The Klezmatics, a sort of supergroup who’ve featured such important figures as trumpeter Frank London, violinst Alicia Svigals and singer Lorin Sklamberg. Additions such as a drumkit have made the band’s sound a little more friendly to the rock fan’s ear, but don’t think they don’t know their stuff, as this track off their hilariously-titled album ‘Rhythm + Jews’ shows:

This compilation manages to showcase all these various sub-genres and chronological developments of the music over two CDs, mostly featuring American bands, but also including old masters such as Brandwein, and Europeans such as Muzsikás from Hungary and Kroke from Poland. As is the case with all of these ‘longbox’ compilations issued by the German record label Network (other gems in the series include ‘Road of the Gypsies’ and ‘Sufi Soul’), there’s also some fantastically informative notes in English, French and German, and many great archival photos of Jewish ceremonies. Quite frankly, you couldn’t ask for a better introduction to the genre, given that it includes most key figures as well as a few oddities – and not sequenced in any real order, so there’s no chance of getting bored with too much of the same. Whether or not you know the difference between a freylekh, a doina and a bulgar (different song types), it’s all great fun, lively, energetic and complex. The only dud track is the rather overwrought ‘A Yiddisha Momma’ sung by Ava Gold, about how much she loves her old mama. Well, schmaltz is a Yiddish word (although it originally meant ‘chicken fat’!)

If all that clarinet and exciting dance music has worn you out a bit, let’s finish with an example of the more sedate, though no less emotionally intense side of klezmer. Based on the liturgical chants of the Hassidim, there’s a few examples of this repetitive, spiritual music on this compilation too, mostly sung by the marvellous Lorin Sklamberg. Here he is with The Klezmatics, singing ‘Shnirele Perele’. How fitting that this song finishes the compilation: the most successful klezmer band in the world performing a song about the imminent arrival of the Messiah. What a note to end on, eh?