Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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World Music

In many ways, the currently inescapable terms "world music" and "world-beat" are problematic, and they don't imply quite the same thing. Both are used as loose code for "Third World music," which in turn is code for "music by city-dwellers of color whose upwardly mobile postprimitivism recalls the Afro-Americans who gave us rock and roll." But "world music" has a vaguely new age aura, futuristic and folkish at the same time, while "world-beat" almost always means danceable and is usually favored by rockers in search of the next big thing. Both formulations react against the English-language world-pop hegemony that's prevailed since the Beatles if not World War II if not the Jazz Age. And given the stasis that now drags at English-language pop/rock in both its hegemonic and antihegemonic guises, I was ready to abandon the anti-Yurrupean principle (and bias) that's sustained me ever since the late '50s, birthtime not only of rock and roll but of the upstart scholarly discipline called American Studies, a rarely acknowledged source of rockcrit--and rock--ideology.

Although before I got home I'd sought out most of the entrepreneurs who've spread the world music word, my inquiries were so unsystematic--most of the time I just took notes on my small talk with the dozens of academics, journalists, and fringe bizzers I was meeting anyway--that all conclusions, especially about what isn't there, must remain tentative. But though I ran across interesting European rock here and there--invariably suffused with the charms of underdevelopment, either very small-scale or from the Communist bloc--I can't say my sources bubbled over with enthusiasm for their native music. Everywhere I went I encountered otherwise dissimilar participant-observers who were keeping an ear on both black and Arab Africa, as well as rap and (especially in trend-hungrie England) house. But the only European act that got mentioned twice was a Dutch band called the Nits. A record store owner in West Berlin pulled eight Nits albums out of her private collection, and I wouldn't be surprised if there was a slyly catchy best-of somewhere in there--name it after their theme song, "In the Dutch Mountains." Remember your grade-school geography half as well as the Dutch remember their grade-school English and you will recall that there are no Dutch mountains. And that ain't all there's no Dutch of. Europeans can be so ironic.


I went to Europe wondering how I'd fend off anti-U.S. flak at this disgraceful moment in my nation's history, but except for a Parisian visionary we'll meet later, no one gave me any--the Bushkakis Show inspired solicitous incredulity rather than abuse, and there were few gibes at U.S. music or music fans. My contacts appreciated how much all pop and semipop owes this country, but they were past feeling inferior, defensive, or both about it. Where Armstrong or Elvis or Dylan or James Brown symbolized America, so that loving one meant coming to terms with the other, John Zorn or Rory Block or Frankie Knuckles or the Jungle Brothers are admired as individual artists, representative of the avant-garde or women's consciousness or dance culture or the underclass if they're representative of anything at all. The time when America was seminal is assumed to be gone, the English language world-pop hegemony less a boot on Europe's neck than a disagreeable fact of life that's doomed to extinction.

Feeding this casual confidence is the onset of that old chimera, the United States of Europe, more accurately described by its official name, the European Economic Community. As of 1992, participant governments are supposed to have eradicated all trade barriers, welding more than a dozen distinct cultures into one multinational powerhouse. Obviously there'll still be plenty of regional rivalry, even more than in these United States. But with borders vestigial outside of Thatcheria (in the rest of western Europe--including France, which now requires visas of Americanskis--passport control was all but nonexistent), the traditional European suspicion that the world is coming to an end coexists with a sense of rebirth. Insofar as Europeans' premonitions of existential doom were really glimmers of their own cultural decline, they've given way to a realism in which dreams of triumph are dismissed as the oppressive delusions they are and nationalist distractions are sacrificed to the common good, also known as the Common Market. Even anticapitalists find the new structure's internationalism seductive.

Internationalism was one thing U.S. pop always used to have going for it. Well before the American record business commenced its world takeover in the '20s, the force of immigrant usage--German and Italian and Hispanic and Yiddish/East European, always translated into English and usually smoothed over for polite assimilationist consumption--had bent the Afro-Brit nexus of our song and dance every which way. The musical variant of the new European internationalism is far more self-conscious, the product of a century when both ethnic diversity and the cult of the primitive have evolved into bourgeois counterconventions. Because languages are crammed together geographically in Europe, with only French and English cultivating any pretensions to universality, fluency in more than one is common. The Old World isn't all white any more, either--millions of Africans, Asians, and West Indians have followed the rainbow to the seats of collapsing empire, and temporary workers from North Africa and the Middle East often prove as permanent as the continent's appetite for cheap labor.

All these groups make themselves heard. Twenty years ago, white and mixed-race Algerians and Indonesians were prominent in the fledgling rock of France and Holland; today, Algerians in France, Indians and Pakistanis in Britain, and West Indians in both places have their own rock/pop-inflected subgenres. But most crucial has been the demographic tilt that's gradually increased the concentration of black Africans in Europe--there are no census figures, but estimates of 500,000 in the U.K. and two million in France don't seem crazy. To put it simply, the main reason African music is such a big thing in Europe is that a lot of Africans live there. For a long time, the Europeans who manufactured African records--whether the imperialist proprietors of branch labels like Decca West Africa or accidental minimoguls like the owners of Paris's Sonodisc--assumed that their market was in Africa. To this day none of them ignore that market. But European Africans have more money than African Africans, and European Europeans, who've been buying black music from Afro-Americans since the '20s, have a lot more money than that. Thus it was that in the early '80s visionary impresarios along two rather different models looked to spur xxstimulate a demand for African music much closer to home.

In England, the center was Stern's, a modest radio shop near London University that way back in the '40s started supplying African students, diplomats, and fortune-seekers with highlife, juju, rumba, African spirituals, Christmas music, and Jim Reeves records. When the radio dealer lost his lease in 1982, a consortium comprising one Armenian-born fan, one Dutch-born fan, and one Ghanaian-born buyer-clerk outbid rivals for the Stern's name and stock and set up their own record label. African music was groundswelling. Names like Jumbo Vanrenen (then issuing southern African music on his own Rough Trade-distributed Earthworks label, now issuing anything he thinks has a shot on his own Island-distributed Mango label), Ben Mandelson (then the sensibility behind Jah Wobble and Orchestre Jazira, now the sensibility behind GlobeStyle Records), and David Toop (then dispensing impolite musicology in Collusion, now dispensing upmarket trends in The Face) were beginning to surface. Highlife rhythms were popping up on ska records. Chris Blackwell was positioning Sunny Adé as the next Bob Marley. And so forth.

Dreams of juju glory aside, though, the heavy action was across the Channel, with when it began depending on who you ask. Jazz critic Gerald Arnaud points out that Sunny Adé's European advisor, Martin Meissonnier, worked as a teenager for free jazz trumpeter turned world-music oracle Don Cherry, who also hung with railroad heir, music fan, magazine/record/radio magnate, and visionary to be named later Jean-François Bizot. But though Cherry's mid-'70s work transcends the insipidity of its tendencies, at its worst it's woozily organic, music to save the whales: world music rather than world-beat. In fact, Sunny Adé is sometimes accused--willfully and irrelevantly, but not altogether unjustly--of a comparable formlessness, of emphasizing flow at the expense of drive and texture at the expense of shape. For as Bizot would no doubt insist, the turnaround was not to come from English speakers, Adé and Cherry included. It was the Zaireans, Senegalese, Camerounians, and other Afro-Francophones of Paris and its banlieux, especially a little municipality directly east of the city called Montreuil, who would deliver the world's popular music from the "roast beef radio" of "an Anglo-Saxon world intoxicated on its own narcissism."


I met Bizot in the unkempt top-floor office where he edits and publishes Actuel, a vaguely Rolling Stone-style journal evolved into a handsome monthly newsmagazine. Imagine a Mother Jones sharp with irony and thick with advertising, put out by a music-lover whose life--unlike that of, let us say, Jann Wenner, who in the heat of the '60s advised readers to resist Chicago's siren call--was transformed by 1968, a successful publisher who in 1988 shares a housing compound (in a far from verdant or haute-bourgeois suburb a little south of Montreuil) with various of his senior staff. Actuel is slick in a very Gallic way, not taken seriously by the serious, but nobody denies its central role in world-beat propaganda. That would be hard, because since 1981 the magazine has underwritten an even more remarkable popular medium, Paris's Radio Nova, conceived to target the city's underserviced African and Caribbean population as it sucked in inquisitive rock fans. In a surprisingly good city for black radio--three or four pop-funk stations, rarely as au courant as New York's and never as schlocky--Radio Nova programs shifting proportions of world black music, very dance-conscious, heavy on soukous and zouk and rap and soul with a lot of Algerian rai now part of the mix. There's nothing else like it anywhere.

Graying, trim but not fussy, casually fashionable in a very Gallic way, Bizot gives good interview: darting from point to point, with mobile eyebrows and sly smiles putting English xxsidespin on everything he says, he's a charismatic con man who doesn't pretend to anything grander and half convinces you that people who do are posers. He describes his involvement in African music as motivated by simple chauvinism. "I was sick of showbiz rock and roll. And I was disappointed in New York. New York had replaced Paris as the cultural capital, but New York wasn't doing the cosmopolitan thing. So I asked myself, what can we find that would be a concept? Something practical, something we could have, something we could export? Even if it was ripped off, you know?"

At first I didn't, actually, for despite his abundant irony, it didn't seem to cross Bizot's mind that maybe he was ripping off Africans. The expropriation whose inevitability he so regretted was from Paris, not by it, with the exploiters U.S.- and U.K.- (and Germany- and Netherlands- and Japan-) based major labels and the same English-language stars whose interest signaled that he was onto something--Prince and Jagger and Stewart Copeland and David Byrne. For Bizot is convinced that Zairean and Senegalese pop are part Parisian; limited to a two-track in Kinshasa and an eight-track in Abidjan, he told me, African Francophones rarely recorded in Africa, and although he's exaggerating as usual, he's got a point. Certainly by the late '70s it was common for musicians to fly up, stay with relatives, cut their albums, and go back. "These records were not ethnic," he insists. "They were all made in Montreuil."

Whatever problems one might have with Bizot's cosmopolitan provincialism, there's no denying that Afro-Parisian is a sui generis synthesis. Not only does superior audio intensify pulse and filigree as it embodies the consumerist (and cosmopolitan) aspirations of fashion-mad stars who drop designer names with one-upping savoir-faire, but an ever-expanding clan of session players--Frenchmen, West Indians, Nigerians, a smattering of Portugese speakers, and Francophones from all over Western, Central, and Northern Africa--inflect Africa's dizzying indigenous rhythms and vocal techniques with their own achievements, habits, and prejudices. As with most dance scenes, homogeneity lurks, and the same musical elements might well come together more quirkily back home--John Storm Roberts, whose 1973 Africa Dances was the original Afropop compilation, cites Angel Revignet's zoukish, Gabon-recorded Taxi Man, and I'd mention the Muslim soul of "Jalo" on Mango's 1981 Sound d'Afrique, cut before Youssou N'Dour followed his star north. Nevertheless, Afro-Parisian music is in the throes of an unmistakable enthusiasm. It resembles Western pop only obliquely--where more subservient fusions politely add irrelevant funk beats and guitar moves, it pretty much confines its borrowings to full-scale takeovers and occasional allusions--but it has the infectious reach and confident eclecticism that have charged pop moments from Elvis to Thriller. And this will continue to be true if soukous, zouk, and the rest remain totally marginal in the English-speaking world. Bizot is certainly right about that--the English-speaking world has lost its monopoly on pop moments.

Early on, Afro-Parisian was the realm of Sonodisc, a label in the tradition of such storied r&b companies as Savoy and King, whose owners were notorious for their lack of couth, just like Sonodisc's M. David. Bizot and his moneywise CEO Gilbert Castro are classy operators in the mold of Jerry Wexler and the Ertegun brothers, their Celluloid label a rough counterpart to Atlantic. (Celluloid cofounder Jean Karakos, a longtime Afrobeat enthusiast who in the early '70s sparked and then bankrupted the avant-rock/new thing BYG label, split off in 1981 to run a separate U.S.-based label that shared the Celluloid name and logo; despite fluctuating cross-distribution, the U.S. company is so unconnected, not to mention untogether, that no one in New York could tell me the Paris number when I got home.) Like most successful small-scale music operations, Celluloid is resented by similar enterprises that are just scraping by--criticized, sometimes quite credibly, for arrogance, opportunism, extortionate pricing, and vague malfeasances against its artists. But it's spread world-beat consciousness as effectively as Chris Blackwell's much larger Island, another company rich in hereditary wealth and personal commitment, focusing its careful release schedule on African artists it can sell to French whites--mbalax's northbound Youssou N'Dour, ambitious ambassadors Les Ambassadeurs, veteran disco discovery Manu Dibango, and above all the flamboyantly oversold Senegalese-Parisian band Toure Kunda. And though Castro asserts that Sonodisc, with its "nice but rather old-fashioned catalogue" and "no promotion," is "not competition," the aggressive licensing of Celluloid's distribution arm, Mélodie, has put his company atop France's African specialty market as well. The man has put the lessons of 1968, when he made big trouble as a Maoist tactician xxtheoretician firebrand, into unrelentingly progressive hip-capitalist practice.


Greil Marcus likes to say that there's no good French rock and roll because the language is too euphonious--that rock's aggressive vocals and rhythms demand something more guttural. The opposite principle may apply in Africa. Congolese rumba-soukous has spread so inexorably that fans forget the time when the generic in-the-know-sounding term for Afropop was "highlife"--forget that Anglophone highlife, which mixed local rhythms with relatively polite British (and American) dance-band and stage usages, was the continent's big music until a decade or so after Gold Coast became Ghana in 1957. And though soukous's true native tongue is the Bantu lingua franca Lingala, it seems plausible that its Francophone connections--and those of Afropop as a whole these days--reflect a comparable synergy, that the lubricated vowels of the Romance languages suit African music's soar and flow and ingrained rhythmic complexity better than English's harsh nasalities. It seems significant too that what shifted the balance was a distinctly African-inflected Afro-American music sung in another Romance language--Cuban Spanish. Africa's affinity for France's Mediterranean-tinged hedonism is clear enough as well, especially in soukous's sartorial one-upsmanship--performers have been known to display their duds inside out so audiences can verify designer labels. But the deep divisions between Francophone and Anglophone Afropop reflect not just cultural happenstance but hotly argued political disagreements, disagreements with ramifications both inside and outside of Africa.

French and British imperialists favored different styles of paternalism: France went so far as to pretend that its West African colonies were far-flung departments of the republic, ruling absolutely even as it granted citizenship to the Paris-trained elite it initiated into the mysteries of the world's only true civilization, while Britain fostered the illusion of autonomy, entrusting governance to a bureaucracy of homegrown stooges insofar as that proved convenient. So when World War II made independence inevitable, Britain was more willing to cut its colonies loose, often leaving them to the ministrations of former stooges, while France made future aid contingent on economic concessions in which trade remained unimpeded and all currencies were keyed to the franc. In the short run, this has been especially nice for Senegal and Côte d'Ivoire, where French consumer goods--including French phonograph records, Afro-Parisian prominent among them--remain readily available for a sizable human infrastructure of white professionals and underlings as well as a xxless sizable black middle class. In contrast, many xxsome former British colonies--most significantly Nigeria, the largest and wealthiest nation in black Africa--have banned xxmost or many foreign-made goods, with cultural products among the first to go. Even if Nigerian xxand Ghanaian musicians were to travel to England to record, which nothing in their culture or colonial conditioning inclines them to do, those records couldn't be sold back home.

So not even the British deny that these policy differences have enriched Francophone music in the short run. Infusions of outside culture have always fed the growth and evolution of popular music--infusions as brutal as the slave trade xxmarkets of Rome and New Orleans. The interactions that nourish Afropop's Parisian strains are oppressive, from the copper mines where workers invented Lingala as they melted to the adoring xxingrained Francophilia that spurs Africans stuck in subject economies to peddle their labor up north. But no one is claiming that more autonomous Africans have it better. And despite scattered traditionalists, ethnomusicologists, cultural theorists, and propagandists of Negritude, listeners agree that these days, it would be perverse to deny the musical results. The Muslim soul of Salif Keita and Youssou N'Dour, the rock-kora synthesis of Malian guitarist Zani Diabete, Ibrahima Sylla's discofied production flash, decades of salsa/funk/soca-inflected world-dance innovations by principals of OK Jazz, Zaiko Langa Langa, and lesser Zairean bands--these historic syncretisms are the tip of the iceberg. Afro-Anglophone cultures, especially to the south, deserve credit for their own. But they're not as rich or as various.

To which those who still place their faith in autonomy need only respond: not yet. For if you hold with the likes of John Storm Roberts--an Englishman who fell for African music in Kenya, the healthiest of Afro-Anglophone cultures--that, in the end, hybrids flourish more richly and variously in the nurturing soil of the subject culture, that transplanted to the invaders' turf their genetic identity dissipates with every fleeting generation, then Afro-Anglophone's time is sure to come again. Indeed, in the impressionistic rumor mill that is British music journalism, highlife revivals are sighted several times a year, and while the shopkeeper-distributors at Stern's allow as how highlife and juju and African spirituals don't even sell much to English West Africans any more, they point out that (Anglophone) Zimbabwe and South Africa are surging--the Bhundu Boys' (indie-) chart-topping debut was Britain's biggest African album, and the high and mighty Francophones over at Celluloid have covered their flank by cutting a deal with Gallo, the white-owned label that's dominated South African pop for more than half a century. In England, where the ANC cultural boycott has the force of law with anybody to the left of Neil Kinnock, this is anathema, the ultimate proof of the cynical

Village Voice, 1988