One of the wonderful things about the writing and reviewing I’ve been doing over the last few years is learning how little I know the people we share this planet with. It’s difficult not to be affected by the chauvinism caused by living in North America that ensures we think we are the be-all and end-all of what it is to be human. Even when we know that the propaganda asserting our way of life as the pinnacle of human achievement is a load of crap, there is no denying that it contributes to a narrowing of our world view.
Perhaps this is partly due to the fact that the three countries of North America are ruled by immigrants, and that two of the countries share a similar heritage. There is also the fact that we have encouraged people to become “one of us” instead of retaining ties to where they came from. While Canada does offer a pretense of multiculturalism, it’s more along the lines of being ethnic on special occasions, because the reality is we are just as nervous as anyone else about those who choose to remain different.
“If they want to live here they should live like the rest of us” is still the attitude of choice for those who have been here longest, conveniently forgetting that they too imported all their social and cultural mores when they settled here. It’s not hard to see that when that mindset looks out into the world, it’s going to try and compartmentalize everybody else into easy-to-digest generalizations.
So, instead of Africa being composed of numerous countries and a mind-boggling array of cultures, she becomes a single entity. India and China have within their borders as many different language groups and cultural traditions as are found in nearly all of Europe, yet we persist in considering them only in terms of their geographical boundaries.
Music may not be able to change the world, but it sure has the ability to open your eyes to what the world has to offer. Argentinean Alejandro Franov’s new release Khali on the Staubgold label, distributed by Forced Exposure in North America, is one of the best examples of this that I’ve ever heard.
Alejandro has been playing music for years now, with his albums available only in Japan and South America. Like another Western Hemisphere musician, Bob Brozman, his music has less to do with the land of his birth than with the places he has traveled. A multi-instrumentalist, he has mastered instruments from three continents: the sitar and mridangam from India, the mbira of the Shona people of Zimbabwe, and the Paraguayan harp (arpa in Spanish).
Each of the instruments he plays, especially the mbira, is culturally specific to a place and a people. At first glance, we might mistake the mbira for what we call a thumb piano (kalimba) over here, but it is far more sophisticated, with two rows of “keys” and five specific tunings. In fact the name of the instrument is modified according to its tuning, so on Khali you will see credits for agandanga mbiras and nyamaropa mbiras, two separate tunings that create very distinct sounds and moods.
Now that we know what he’s playing, the question is: what does he do with them? There are plenty of people out there who use another culture’s musical instruments to either make “neat” sounds or create a vacant and tasteless New Age broth. Well, Alejandro Franov isn’t one of those people.
Starting with the title of the disc, he is deliberately confusing about his intent. Khali is the name of an Indian deity, but it’s also the name of the island in Croatia where Alejandro’s grandfather came from. But he’s playing a sitar, right, so he must be referring to the goddess – except he doesn’t play ragas, or any other traditional Indian music, with either the sitar or the mridangam, and he’s playing them alongside traditional instruments of southern Africa.
What he has created is some very beautiful music with all these instruments. There are thirteen tracks on the CD, but each segues into the next, so that it is like one 50-minute composition. He has also incorporated some Western instruments: keyboards, guitar, glockenspiel, and the occasional non-verbal vocal accompaniment.
What makes his work so good is that he makes no attempt to disguise the roughness or the voice of the instruments. Each instrument’s sound is clear and distinct within the composition, and is used in the manner it was meant to be used. Instead of a bland mishmash that doesn’t really sound like anything, his music is alive with all the cultures he draws upon.
What Alejandro Franov has done with Khali is create real “world music.” His compositions do not merely reflect one cultural identity or voice; they speak with the voices of many people. It’s a celebration of distinctiveness within a harmonious framework, and a joy to listen to not only for its musical splendour, but for the philosophy behind the creation.
Not many people are willing to say that we don’t all have to believe or act the same way to live in harmony. Alejandro Franov’s music on Khali not only makes that statement, it proves it’s possible and that it can sound beautiful.