Two weeks ago, a new executive order rolled out from the Trump White House designed to restrict United States entry for travelers from six Muslim-majority nations in northeast Africa and the Middle East. Legal challenges to the new order already have arisen, but the debacle of the administration’s previous effort at a “Muslim Ban” is fresh in Kinan Azmeh’s mind. The Syrian-born clarinetist, a member of Yo-Yo Ma’s polyglot Silk Road Ensemble, was on tour in Europe on January 27 when the original order provoked a ruckus of confusion and protest at America’s airports, and it appeared that even green card holders—such as Azmeh, a longtime resident of New York City—might be refused entry to their own adopted homeland.
The order met immediate pushback on multiple fronts, and Azmeh faced no unusual difficulties on his return at John F. Kennedy International Airport. Yet, while the situation caused the high drama that has become routine during the nascent Trump administration, such tension is nothing new to artists such as Azmeh. “I’ve been living here for 16 years and entering was always an issue,” says the musician, one of the prominent personalities in Morgan Neville’s documentary The Music of Strangers. “Things didn’t change since I moved to New York, which was a week before 9/11. I remember the times you had to register every time you exited the country, or coming back and being held for a few hours waiting to be questioned. A lot of people don’t know this has been happening a long time.”
Only now it is happening with a new intensity. The situation is an active threat to the ability of global music artists to tour the United States— something that is often already complicated—and arrives, paradoxically, at a time when audiences are more easily immersed in international sounds than ever before. It seems like an opportune moment to consider the meaning and relevance of what has been called “world music,” as a global refugee crisis and a rise in nationalistic fervor in Europe, Russia, and the United States newly threatens open cultural exchange.
“I’m from the world,” says Oliver Conan, with a touch of irony, when I mention the phrase “world music” to him. “I’ve always been a part of the world.” In 2002, the musician launched Barbès, a shoebox-sized bar and performance space in Brooklyn’s Park Slope, an enterprise he shares with fellow French expatriate and frequent bandmate Vincent Douglas. Both men hail from Paris, and named their nightspot after their favorite neighborhood in the City of Light, the one notably populated with immigrants from African countries once colonized by the French. Over the years, the bar has served as an essential hub for all kinds of international sounds. On any given night, a visitor might drop in and hear The Mandingo Ambassadors, founded by guitarist Mamady “Djelike” Kouyate (a Guinean refugee who came to the United States for political asylum), or French guitarist Stephane Wrembel’s homages to Django Reinhardt. More than anything else, though, the bar has showcased a border-busting hybridization of musical traditions and innovations that leap across languages, genres, and historical eras.
Conan, as you might guess, isn’t fond of the term “world music.” Coined in the 1960s and introduced as a marketing label in the 1980s, “It was a way to display records that were not from America or an Anglophone country,” he says. “Before that, we had ‘Latin Music,’ ethnic markets. World music was a way to bring the ethnic market to the mainstream.”
Nonesuch Records, under its Explorer Series banner, began doing just that in 1967, without benefit of a one-size-fits-all category. When the project concluded in 1984, the label had released 92 Explorer titles, with field recordings of everything from Balinese and Javanese gamelan to Bulgarian village music. The scholarly, ethnographic approach veered in a more commercial direction with the launch of Putumayo Music in 1993. An offshoot of a clothing and handicraft business, the label packaged its idea of the exotic in frolicsome artwork and an easy-listening vibe that suggested a kind of crunchy nostalgia. Between those polarities of attitude and branding, the broad idea of “world music” inspired a number of record labels over the past four decades, the most notable of them closely linked with investigative musicians both famous and not-so. Peter Gabriel’s RealWorld label, founded in 1989, was higher-minded, taking a curatorial slant eclectic enough to push legends (Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan), fusion concepts (Afro Celt Sound System), and even all-American gospel ensembles (The Blind Boys of Alabama) to a wider audience, which was aided by Gabriel’s status as a cofounder of the WOMAD festival. David Byrne, like Gabriel a musician deeply invested in a kaleidoscopic range of sounds and traditions, launched Luaka Bop in 1988, championing once-obscure greats like Brazilian tropicália superstars Os Mutantes, reclusive Nigerian funk genius William Onyeabor, and São Paulo avant-gardist Tom Zé. Wilder and weirder, Sublime Frequencies, based in Seattle and co-founded by Sun City Girls bassist and vocalist Alan Bishop, has released more than 100 titles since 2003. The label’s focus on sources such as field recordings, radio broadcasts, and even shortwave transmissions, and its initially limited LP runs of 1,000 copies, gave it a markedly rawer vibe, with the literally ephemeral buzz of recordings such as Broken-Hearted Dragonflies: Insect Electronica from Southeast Asia or Princess Nicotine: Folk and Pop Sounds of Myanmar.
Conan has run his own house label, Barbès Records, for several years now. It serves as a platform for several of the venue’s regular acts, cross-pollinating outfits like Slavic Soul Party—an ensemble of improvising jazz musicians who mesh Balkan brass sources with other street band traditions for raucous dance parties—and archival enthusiasms, such as Conan’s deep dive into 1970s Peruvian garage-cumbia psychedelia, and the label’s two-volume breakaway hit, The Roots of Chicha.
Such an anti-orthodox perspective renders the idea of “world music” as a signifier of undistilled folk traditions obsolete and celebrates the promiscuity of sounds migrating between cultures. “Anything I’m interested in is not authentic,” says Conan. “Any great musical genre I’ve been interested in has been the result of some crazy bastardization, whether it’s salsa or the kind of cumbia I was really into from Peru.” In the ‘90s and the aughts, the multicultural influences began to seep potently into indie rock—witness Vampire Weekend, Beirut, Dengue Fever, and others. “It’s not really world music,” Conan says, “but using the same elements that people were using in the ‘80s that were called world music. That’s one reason why the label makes no sense anymore.”
New York’s World Music Institute was founded in 1985, about the time that the phrase “world music” was becoming popular. Decades on, the organization is actively challenging the fustiness of the term through its programming. “I really try to push the boundary of what the term can mean,” says Par Neiburger, artistic director. As an example, he points to a concert with the minimalist composer Steve Reich, celebrating his 80th birthday, that took a detour from all the other events marking the occasion. “The average person doesn’t know that [Reich] spent a good amount of time in Ghana studying African music,” Neiburger says, noting that the piece Drumming was composed soon after Reich returned from West Africa. The WMI concert juxtaposed an ensemble playing traditional Ghanian music, led by Reich’s long-ago Ghanaian instructor, master drummer Gideon Alorwoyie, who is now based in Texas, and the American group Mantra Percussion, playing Drumming. Eventually, the two played simultaneously. “It became its own new composition of music in a way,” Neiburger says.
The crosstalk is organic and not really new. Neiburger cites Fela Kuti, perhaps the most singular and iconic figure to have his records filed under “world music.” The Nigerian bandleader’s Afrobeat sound was very much a hybrid, boldly influenced by James Brown’s propulsive funk. “There is only so much music out there that is purely from a non-Western culture that no way has an influence from Western culture,” says Neiburger, who looks to artists as different as the Japanese composer Ryuichi Sakamoto and the Inuit throat singer Tanya Tagaq as exemplary, contemporary boundary pushers.
Another one might be the rising Ghanaian pop star Jojo Abot, featured last year in WMI’s annual Africa Now! showcase at the Apollo Theater. She has spent much of her life in the USA, and began her songwriting career about five years ago on the MTA, somewhere between Brooklyn and Queens. A subsequent visit home to Ghana turned into a three-year odyssey, as she discovered a contemporary music scene where techno and drum-and-bass blended with popular genres such a highlife and hiplife. The fusion resulted in new forms such as azonto, a dance craze that quickly migrated to Paris, Amsterdam, and London. “You talk to your peers in a way they can directly hear,” says Abot, whose own songs make prominent use of her jazz-diva vocal skills, buffered by beds of percussion and electronics. The new generation of artists back in Ghana are rewiring Western influences, “exploring new ways of expressing themselves.”
Syrian-born clarinetist Kinan Azmeh frames it in another way.
“I don’t really see where Bartók ends and Mozart begins,” he says, “or where Mozart ends and gypsy Romanian clarinet music begins.” The clarinet, he notes, isn’t exactly a classic Arabic instrument. “It was invented somewhere between Russia, France, and Germany. Then it traveled back east and stopped in Turkey, Azerbaijan, and Armenia but never traveled further south.” When he toured the United States a decade ago, playing the smaller towns between the coasts, the performer met with great curiosity. “People asked where Syria was,” he says, recalling how underexposed audiences also thought the clarinet must have been a Syrian instrument. “I’m the only musician they met from that country and I play the clarinet,” Azmeh explains. “Now there’s a big switch. People know where Syria is, and you get asked another kind of question. ‘Oh, do people do music in Syria?’ They know geographically where it is, but they don’t know anything about the culture.”
The way things are going, those audiences will have fewer chances to learn – at least first-hand. The digital revolution has made endless gigabytes of every music genre available for listeners at their fingertips. But flesh-and-blood encounters are imperiled.
Neiburger has been understandably nervous about how a travel ban will impact his bookings. Of specific concern is a May concert with Omar Souleyman, a Syrian singer who has recorded 500-plus albums, collaborated with Björk and Four Tet, and done much to bridge the traditional dance music known as dabke with contemporary electronic music. The artist, who now lives in Turkey, is such a frequent performer in the United States, you might think he resides in Brooklyn instead. “He’s performed something like 20 times,” Neiburger says. “But I don’t mean 20 performances. I mean 20 tours.”
Souleyman has a year-long visa, so ordinarily his entry into the US would not be an issue. Now, however, Neiburger says, “We’re looking at the very real chance that we’re going to have to cancel the concert.” The programmer is hopeful that a waiver clause within the executive order will be applicable to the performer. And as he’s quick to note, “It’s not a political statement. We’re just trying to bring a musician here who has performed here many times.”
Steve MacQueen, artistic director of the Flynn Center for Performing Arts in Burlington, Vermont, fears an impending chill. “It’s going to hurt Americans more than it hurts other cultures,” he says. MacQueen believes the ban will even discourage artists who aren’t targeted. “Let’s say you’re Algerian. You’ll do Europe now. Go to China. There’s lots of other frontiers. It kills me to see us abdicate our position. Since World War II, the place everybody wants to play is the U.S. It’s the birthplace of all this stuff. It’s where Louis Armstrong and Elvis Presley were born. But now that seems like it’s over to me. This kind of stuff marginalizes us to the rest of the world. Why go someplace where you’re not welcome? Why go someplace where you’re going to get hassled? You don’t.”
Azmeh says he was deeply moved by the urgency of American protests against the initial travel ban. Yet he also is adamant that art not become subservient to politics. It can speak entirely on its own terms.
“I don’t think you can burden the actual art-making with lots of political slogans,” Azmeh says. “It’s not like I want to play with XYZ person because I want to cross barriers. I think, ‘There is another person, who can play beautifully, and I’d like to play with that person.’ Of course, it takes a more important role when the surrounding context suggests the opposite. It’s interesting that sometimes we have to repeat phrases that should be the standard practice. This is when you have to make your message a bit louder, and hope that it’s contagious.”