Of all the influences on Western style popular music, the sounds of Africa are still the most pervasive. Any time you hear Blues, Jazz, Rock and Roll, Rap, Soul, or any combination of the above, you don't have to dig too deep to find African roots. Even Bluegrass and Country have African influences, even if it's only their use of the Banjo, which was introduced to North America by African slaves.
It makes you wonder then why it has taken so long for the music of Africa to gain a toehold in North America. Unlike the music of the Middle East or India with their different melodic and rhythmical structures, African music has familiarity going for it.
Even though people like Peter Gabriel in the early eighties began his series of World Of Music And Dance (WOMAD) festivals as attempts to bridge the gap between our two worlds, acceptance has been slow. While European audiences have shown more of a wiliness to accept performers like King Sunny Ade from Nigeria and more recently Baaba Maal from Senegal, North Americans still treat them like novelty acts.
If it's hard for African musicians to gain acceptance, you can only imagine the difficulties faced by people from countries just to their north in the Middle East. Not only are there the political and social barriers to overcome, but a good deal of their music has nothing for a Western audience to compare it to.
We can't say, "Oh, that sounds like the Blues or like a song I heard on the radio yesterday". Although people like Ry Cooder have produced albums with performers from there, the only way it seems that musicians from Jordan, Israel, Egypt, Iraq, Algeria and the rest can make an impression is by getting their music sampled for the dance floor.
Music is supposed to be this great means of communication between people, and yet if a good portion of the world doesn't even listen to the rest of the world's music, what's that say about our abilities to communicate? Thankfully, there are still labels and people who try their damnedest to ensure that musical information flows two ways, and not just West to East.
The World Music Network and Rough Guides, publishers of The Rough Guide travel books and The Rough Guide To World Music have been collaborating on a series of CDs that promote the incredibly diverse selection of music that our world has to offer. One of their most recent releases, The Rough Guide to Africa & Middle East is a compilation of some of the more dynamic musicians to have come out of that region in the last twenty years.
What I found good about this compilation was although they did include a song each from well known performers King Sunny Ade and Baaba Maal, the rest of the material representing African musicians was from countries that don't normally get representation on these types of discs. I especially liked the pieces by Kekele of the Congo and Mory Kante from Guinea. Although I have heard of Mory Kante this was my first opportunity to hear his playing, and I have never heard music from the Congo before so both these tracks were a pleasant surprise.
What wasn't so pleasant was the overt Western influences in the music that's been selected to represent the Middle East. I know it is supposed to be indicative of what is happening right now, but wouldn't it give people a clearer understanding of the music if more traditional artists had been chosen. It was like they were more concerned with making it palatable for ears used to Western pop culture then to show it in its original context.
I look to guides like this to give me access to material that's not readily available or unfamiliar. Instead of finding out about the distinct music of a region through this disc, we're just given further examples of the pervasive influence of Western culture throughout the world. I personally don't want to listen to music from the Sub-Sahara desert that sounds like it could have been recorded in Chicago in the mid–seventies.
While of course it is unreasonable to expect that a country's popular music won't influence each other around the world, The Rough Guide to World Music: Africa & The Middle East sells itself on the basis of providing an introduction to the music of the regions, not music from those areas influenced by Euro-pop and North American top forty. I find it a worrisome trend that more and more of the acts from abroad being promoted in North America by World Music labels are those who have in some way homogenized their sound to be in step with what everyone else is doing.
Instead of celebrating the diversity of the world, there is a move towards homogenization. Even the accompanying pamphlet and information supplied via the enhanced CD Rom file on the disc seems to think it's more important to tell the listener how people's music is popular with the dance hall crowd or is similar to Western pop than how it is reflective of their own country.
While they do give good background on the performers and their cultural influences, too many of them end with descriptions of how they sound like an aspect of our culture. I already know what house music and top forty sounds like on our side of the world. What I want to find out is what does the music of the Sahara sound like, not what it sounds like after it has turned into the latest dance hall craze.
The Rough Guide to World Music: Africa & The Middle East while providing some insight into the music of these countries continues a disturbing trend of promoting those acts which have become part of a melting pot, diluting their original flavour down into something with a generic back beat that can be danced to.
While the people at Rough Guide deserve credit for their efforts to increase awareness of the world's cultural diversity, they at times tend to slip into the 'same is good' attitude because it breaks down barriers. They should instead promote learning about other people to accomplish the same task. The Rough Guide To World Music: Africa & The Middle East unfortunately falls more into the former camp then the latter and proved somewhat disappointing to me as a result.