Ethno fusion: a good idea in principle but usually pretty horrible. Daniel Kalder drums up a fews exceptions…
As a bored lad in 1990s small town Scotland my ear craved exotic sounds. I probably discovered “world” rhythms via Talking Heads LPs, before graduating to the harder stuff. And so I dabbled about in African hi-life guitars, Zairois Soukous music, French gypsy music and whatever else I could find that was cheap enough to minimize my investment risk (I was a poor student). I found a few good things, but I also stumbled upon something horrible: ethno fusion music.
In principle fusion is a good idea – it’s what Talking Heads were up to, and much music is at the end of the day fusion- whether it be Brazilian Samba or Country and Western. Almost all the Mexican music I hear on Texas radio has a polka groove. But I suppose I draw a line between musicians from one tradition picking up ideas from another and well-paid record producers seeking to make (for instance) Qawwali music more palatable to Guardian readers by adding some synth noises and tasteful guitar. Thus also was born the horror of the Afro-Celt Sound System which was barely afro, and not all that Celt, but rather pan pipey rubbish with an African harp on a few tracks. Ugh.
THIS IS RUBBISH, DON’T LISTEN TO IT
Fortunately it’s not all tosh, and I’m always intrigued when I hear that a musician from one tradition is re-invigorating his sound with alien elements. It’s a natural process, and it’s how music stays alive, and that brings me to my first choice, a band that took music I hated from having been forced to dance to it over the course of my education and rendered it funky. I first saw Shooglenifty performing a free gig on top of a shopping centre in Edinburgh during the Festival and was struck by two things- the exceptionally high standard of their musicianship and the fact that electrifying jigs and reels seemed to make perfect sense. Suddenly the tedium of the beardy folk set and Hogmanay specials featuring Aly Bain and Friends melted away. Jings, crivens, help ma boab, I thought. This is how this music should be done… it’s dance music!!!!
Turns out some other bands had the same idea, but most of them were rubbish, especially The Tartan Amoebas, who tried to funk up the bagpipes. Shooglenifty though are the real deal and still exist; they’ve done a bunch of studio records and two excellent live ones, and the fusion involves more than just fiddling about with electronics, but also a strong presence of banjo, reinforcing the feedback loop of Scottish music and American folk. Here’s The Tammienorrie; BREAK IT DOWN!
Around the same time I discovered a marvelous record by an Algerian chap named Khaled on the discount racks- N’Ssi, N Ssi. I’ve always liked Arab rhythms and strings and the language is great in that it’s totally incomprehensible and so works as pure sound to a man of my Indo-European linguistic background. Even though I understand nothing I can hear the best Arab singers doing clever, syncopated rhythmic things with their singing. Khaled meanwhile has a fantastic voice- beefy and powerful- and he’s very interested in funk and dance styles. His own background is in “Rai”- raucous secular music about love and drinking that got him chased out of Algeria in the early 1990s. Relocated to France he upgraded his production, and N’Ssi N’Ssi was even produced in part by Don Was of Walk the Dinosaur notoriety. The record is a mix of more traditional sounds with heavy Arab funk, and even though his latest release is a totally cheesy collaboration with Lady Gaga’s producer, I don’t mind. Khaled is not playing music for the “authenticity” hungry Guardian/Womad set but rather for listeners around the world. Sometimes he likes to have global mega hits and he decides when to cheese or not to cheese. This live recording of Abdelkader is great; and as the pics make clear Khaled is a pretty cheerful chap:
As I said, Arab music is my favourite “foreign” style and within that I dig Rai most of all. Rachid Taha is another Rai singer, although unlike Khaled he immigrated to France as a child and grew up in some mangy working class suburbs; thus his work has an angry, political edge at times and unlike Khaled he is drawn to rock and punk. He worked for years with the English guitarist-producer Steve Hillage (formerly of mega hippies Gong) and together they produced a string of excellent records, the last of which so far was Tekitoi, which even had Eno pop up on a track or two. Taha has a raspy voice, obviously not as powerful as Khaled’s, but he seethes with attitude. I greatly enjoyed an interview he did with an American journalist who was obviously hunting for E-Z War on Terror quotes; Taha instead brought him to a Lesbian bar he co-owns in Paris. Here he covers the Clash classic “Rock the Casbah”, a re-appropriation of sorts but also returning a complement. ROCK ON!
Finally we come to Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, the mighty Qawwali singer who died in 1997 at the ridiculously early age of 49. He could do simply stupendous things with his lungs; he had phenomenal tone; wonderful control- and was in short a singer of world-historical quality. Qawwali is Sufi music and in the 90s Peter Gabriel released a bunch of it on his Real World label, shifting many units to people who knew nothing about the tradition but felt the force of the music’s ecstatic, transcendent urge.
Anyway, shortly before he died Khan recorded a fusion record with Eno disciple Michael Brook. The heavy input from the producer is obvious, and there can be no doubt that this makes the songs a lot more accessible, but there’s nothing wrong with that so long as the results are good. And here, in fact, against all odds, this weird fusion of chilly sci-fi soundscaping with ancient tradition really works. The record is just full of tact, discretion and excellent choices. In fact, you’ll wonder why all Qawwali music isn’t backed with “infinite guitar” and tasteful overdubs of African harp. Enjoy!