World music - cultural exploration or exploitation?

The old concierge in an apartment building where an American writer and his wife lived had said it best. "That type, they want everything, men and women from the common people, young ones, healthy, preferably from the countryside, who can't read or write, serving them all day, then servicing them at night. A package deal, and between two pokes, tokes on a nicely packed pipe of kif to help the American write! Tell me your story, he says to them. I'll make a novel out of it, you'll even have your name on the cover: you won't be able to read it but no matter, you're a writer like me, except that you're an illiterate writer, that's exotic - what I mean is, unusual, my friend! That's what he tells them, without ever mentioning money, because you don't talk about that, not when you're working for a writer, after all! They aren't obliged to accept, but I know that poverty - our friend poverty - can lead us to some very sad places..."

That extract is from Leaving Tangier, a powerful and angry novel by the Moroccan-born Tahar Ben Jelloun and the swipe at long-time Tangier resident Paul Bowles is barely disguised. Bowles is widely lauded for exploring the culture of Morocco and I have written here praising his field recordings of Jewish music in Essaouira and his role in bringing the Master Musicians of Jajouka to an international. But Tahar Ben Jelloun raises the uncomfortable but important question of whether cultural exploration is really commercial exploitation by another name.

Exploitation dressed as exploration is widespread in the arts and Western classical music has a long and distinguished history of plundering Oriental creativity to service Occidental audiences, ranging from Mozart's Die Entführung aus dem Serail through Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade to Colin McPhee's proto-minimalist Tabu-Tabuhan and Britten's Prince of the Pagodas. Recent years have seen massive growth in the world music market and there are some who view world music as just another example of commercial exploitation disguised as cultural exploration.

French guitarist, oud player and composer Titi Robin is one of those questionning the ethics of the record industry and his thesis that world music should embrace commercial as well as creative fusion has already featured here. His River Banks project is an attempt to share commercial and creative rewards by recording CDs in Morocco, Turkey and India using local musicians and production facilities and releasing the results on local labels before marketing them in Europe via French independent label Naïve. But the project is more than an exercise in levelling the commercial playing field as it also rejects musical fusion of ethnic themes in favour of original compositions created for the musicians of each of the three countries.

River Banks will be released in Europe in January 2012 and I have not yet heard the albums. But I travelled to Paris at the end of November to hear the premiere concert performance at the Institut du Monde Arabe, which is where the accompanying photos were taken. Practicalities precluded bringing all the musicians involved to Europe so the live performance used Titi Robin's own trio augmented by one musician from India, Turkey and Morocco respectively. Titi's regular band comprises accordionist Francis Varis and Brazilian percussionist extraordinaire Zé Luis Nascimento, who played incidentally in a 2008 BBC Prom. Joining the Trio in Paris were Indian sarangi player Murad Ali Khan, Turkish kaval flautist Sinan Celik and Moroccan guembri player Mehdi Nassouli.

Many will dismiss Titi Robin's vision as hopeless idealism flying in the face of commercial reality. But something very special happened in the Institut du Monde Arabe on November 26th and it was not just the audience stomping and calling for more after a two and a quarter hour set played by the sextet without an interval. We had a glimpse of a new future - not just a new and exciting musique sans frontières but also a new and more equitable way of doing the business of music. Hopeless idealism perhaps, but please give me that rather than the greedy self-interest that is now the defining feature of the music industry.

* Extended samples from River Banks can be heard here.
* French interview with Titi Robin 'troubadour éthique' on the Three Rivers project here. His views (in English) on the expulsion of Roma from France are essential reading, particularly for those in the classical community who limit their activism to the self-interested topic of arts funding.
* All photos are from Le Cargo musical webzine.
* Hat tip to the translator of Leaving Tangier Linda Coverdale. The UK edition received financial assistance from the admirable English PEN which upholds writer's freedom and challenges political and cultural limits on free expression.

My visit to Paris for the Titi Robin concert was entirely self-funded. Any copyrighted material on these pages is included as "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk Also on Facebook and Twitter.


Michael Rofe said…
I've had the pleasure-and privilege of listening to the whole of Les Rives (37 compositions/3.6 hrs) for a couple of months now. A remarkable enterprise, by a remarkable musician. For those familiar with his catalogue, there are echoes of previous works, which in no way detracts from what is, quite simply, a masterpiece. It is a project fused with the integrity and humility of a great musician.
It would have been great to have been at the IMO a few weeks back!
Civic Center said…
The celebration of Paul Bowles and his Moroccan boys has always struck me as a bit queasy making, rather like the old gay men I knew who would pick up adolescent boys in Mexican beach towns. The exploitation, in its cultural and physical and economic implications, is only the beginning of a very complicated exchange that always made me uneasy.

Just saw the Hollywood movie "The Help" which is all about a Southern white girl in the early 1960s who gets black maids to tell her their stories, which she gets published by Sophisticates in New York who ask her to join them in the gilded cultural capita which is the happy ending. There was so much wrong with the tale, in all the ways Tahar Ben Jelloun describes, that it was rather mind-boggling.
Pliable said…
Thanks for that Mike. I commend Leaving Tangier and Tahar Ben Jelloun's other novels to readers. Leaving Tangier is the story of a young Moroccan man, who like many of his peers, wants to leave the oppressive regime in Morocco for the attractions of Spain and Europe. He meets a wealthy male Spanish gallery owner who promises to take him to Barcelona in return for becoming his lover.

There are several important themes in the novel, including the corruption and repression in Morocco and the human trade between North Africa and Europe. As I say in my post, a powerful and angry novel that, like Titi Robin's music, deserves to reach a very wide audience.

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