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.
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