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Not 'They' But 'We': Music Of The World's Peoples At 70
Darran Anderson , December 13th, 2021 09:11

The Folkways anthology of 'world music' was now released a lifetime ago but, says Darran Anderson, there is plenty we could still learn from it

Before the internet, there existed the idea of the internet, or at least the unconscious desire for it – to extend our senses beyond our biological limitations, to connect across great expanses, to know the world, collect and utilise what we might find within it, with all the benevolent and malevolent intentions and outcomes therein.

In his unfinished utopian New Atlantis, Sir Francis Bacon anticipated a world of “artificial thunder and lightning… houses where we make demonstrations of all light and radiations… means of seeing objects afar off, as in remote places… means to convey sound in trunks and pipes, in strange lines, and distances”. For a long time, it was believed such systems would need to be built – a kind of physical rather than virtual internet. There were numerous attempts at connectivity through networks of tubes (the London Pneumatic Despatch Company for instance).

Between the wars, there was a project in Belgium, the Mundaneum, aimed at collecting all the worlds information on index cards. It took the leap from analog to digital to make it possible. It was almost as if this marvellous wretched medium, on which you are reading these words, was waiting and wanting to be born.

One of these prototype internets was set into motion by Albert Kahn, an enlightened French banker. He called it the Archives of the Planet. It was built from photographs taken across the world; an attempt to document earth’s places and peoples, customs and architecture. Over twenty years, Kahn and his collaborators amassed over 70,000 photographs of exceptional quality and insight. The aim was to record “the aspects and the practices of human activity which will inevitably disappear over time”. It’s worth taking a deep dive into the collection Albert-Kahn: les collections ( though I should urge caution, given I’ve been lost in that rabbit-hole for years now. A shorter wiser introduction can be found on Wikimedia.

What makes Kahn’s Archives Of The Planet so astonishing is its colour. Using the autochrome process that you see in the equally remarkable images of Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky, the past comes alive. There is a great tectonic boundary in history, that of the black and white image. It acts as a barrier, separating us from the horrors of the past (war, genocide, famine) to such an extent we can almost imagine that we are a different species entirely to those who suffered or committed these catastrophes. We can reassure or even absolve ourselves, being further along the teleological route of progress, othering those who came before.

To see in vivid colour, as we do in the Archives Of The Planet, the face of someone who lived a century ago and is likely long dead collapses the boundaries we’ve put up (something Peter Jackson achieved in his colourised WW1 documentary They Shall Not Grow Old). It collapses the expanse of time itself between then and now, here and there. You are there with them for the split second. It's disarming in the truest sense and deeply moving. They are us and we are they. Sadly, the Archives Of The Planet project ended abruptly as the Great Depression rippled through the world’s financial systems. The images were filed away, and the world reverted to the false certainties of black and white.

Flash forward to 1951, a return to the technicolour and the dawn of a new age in music – metropolitan, future-facing, experimental. The cover of Stan Kenton's 'City Of Glass' encapsulates an emerging world of skyscrapers and motion. Miles Davis, Wynton Kelly and Les Paul have all just released innovative albums all with the words 'New Sounds' in their titles. Yet the odd thing is for all these now-recognised classics, one of the biggest records at the time was Les Baxter's album Ritual Of The Savage. It’s difficult to appreciate how big the exotica movement, kickstarted by Baxter, was. These days it occupies a small niche, with a limited audience, on the transgressive leftfield of music – the kind of imaginary soundtracks beloved by the likes of Mike Patton, John Zorn, Degurutieni, Ìxtahuele and so on. Often, it sounds like the lounge music they might play in hell and is thus hard to hate.

Seventy years ago, it sold by hundreds of thousands; the musical equivalent of the popular kitsch paintings of Vladimir Tretchikoff and Charles Roka. It was easy listening, albeit titillating enough to aid some degree of astral projection but if there was any ritual of the savage at work here it was no more than a suburban cocktail being poured after a day at the office. At times, Baxter’s fantasias are so schlocky, it feels like he must be reflexively satirical. And yet in a sense, it was lounge music in hell, embodying a very American, very modern and very costly form of Orientalism. The U.S. had ended the Imperial Japanese’s cruel and bloody domination of the people and cultures of the Pacific only half a dozen years earlier. As with empires before, the cultures America now ruled over were brought back in bastardised forms. So, you ended up with tiki bars and Zen Californians at a time when the US was irradiating the islands and occupants of the so-called Pacific Proving Grounds with nuclear bomb tests. Exotica was the soundtrack back home.

If one were generous – though there is little reason to be – it could be said that Baxter’s album was in the tradition of the classical Tondichtung or ‘tone poem’ where composers like Debussy, Rachmaninoff and Sibelius painted scenes and stories with music. It could even be said that Baxter (and other major Exotica artists like Martin Denny) were performing a role that Herge’s Tintin did in France – channelling and satiating a genuine curiosity towards new-found places but also ensuring the audience didn’t get too curious as to what was going on in their name overseas. Listening seventy years after its release, the muted legacy of Baxter’s Ritual Of The Savage is not primarily down to highly questionable ethics, complete absence of authenticity or its reflection of geopolitics but rather taste.

Had his projections of foreign lands been inventive enough, a blind eye may have been cast and they’d be more than the intriguing curios they are today. The arrangements rarely seem as exotic as they claim. The scores too often reveal the composer as a guy who formerly honked a saxophone in Freddie Slack’s Big Band. It’s much harder to dismiss an exceptional genuinely innovative album like, for example, Eno and Byrne’s My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts even though it is as much a projection as Baxter’s; their ‘vision of a psychedelic Africa’ borrowing its title from an Amos Tutuola book that neither had read.

Likewise, it would be hard to discard a painter as incandescently talented as Jean-Léon Gérôme whose Orientalist paintings, particularly of Islamic societies, helped shape and distort Western views of the East. Part of the reason why his work has such power is that it's about desire as much as intrigue towards foreign cultures, and that desire is within us all. So while his paintings have an almost photorealistic attention to detail of the places he visited, the underlying currents and sometimes the explicit scenes (odalisques and harems particularly) function as a stimulus to Western fantasy. Men, mostly but not exclusively, could look at these and imagine what they might be able to do if the trappings of respectability were suspended.

The flip side of this desire/disgust coin is the conception, or rather projection, of the East as a place of infinite salacious horrors. This can be found in transgressive decadent works like Octave Mirbeau’s The Torture Garden but it operated right at the heart of imperial projects. If the conquered are savage, then we must be civilised, the justification went, akin to Baudrillard’s quip that Disneyland exists in order to convince us that the rest of America is real. Hence campaigns against horrific practises like Ling Chi (the death of a thousand cuts), Sati (the burning of widows upon their husband’s funeral pyres), and Thugee (highway gangs preying on travellers), at times when imperial forces were burning down palaces, tying Indian sepoys to the mouths of cannons or establishing concentration camps. Given what was then happening in say British-run Kenya or French Indo-China at the time (the latter portrayed as an almost utopian otherworld by its ruler), the fantasias of Les Baxter are almost charming in naivety, somewhere between Henri Rousseau naivety and an Indiana Jones movie. Arguably, it was not Orientalism that did for Baxter but popularity, bad taste and irrelevance. Within four years, young American men would be finding out what jungles really were, and the Vietnamese people would be introduced to American civilisation. Baxter’s soundtrack went into the charity shop bins, as forgotten as cancer-stricken Marshal Islanders or napalm-burned North Vietnamese were to the wider world.

It was in the charity shop bins that I found another album from 1951, Music Of The World’s Peoples. I was reticent at first. It had that Blue Peter educational quality I’d been suspicious of since childhood but it was cheap and I felt strangely moved by the beauty of the record sleeve. A deeper source of reticence was an early mistrust of the genre of world music, not for the music which was often magnificent and always intriguing but the genre itself – what seemed to me, even then, to be a corporate restructuring of the entire kaleidoscopic universe of cultures and forms into a single reductive corral. (David Byrne would eloquently criticise the genre in the New York Times article, 'Crossing Music's Borders In Search Of Identity; I Hate World Music'.) There seemed a vampiric quality to it, the way artists would use other cultures to stave off their own redundancy or just flat out steal from them, in the same way stories would proliferate of rock’s aristocrats having blood transfusions to stay young and clean out their debauched systems.

My fears were misplaced. Music Of The World’s Peoples had me from the first second I heard it. I realise now it was more akin to anthropology, though I doubt I knew the meaning of the word then let alone the existence of things like Alan Lomax’s Global Jukebox. Likewise, I didn’t know the problems inherent within anthropology, though there was no shortage of ‘othering’ growing up, as I had, in Derry, NI. The sleeve-notes exhibited a certain degree of paternalism but it seemed largely benevolent compared to the entitled condescension of the BBC of the time, “The music of some peoples of the world will sound extremely strange on first hearing. Yet all of this music contains richly rewarding values. That which may sound raucous at first may come to sound beautiful on further hearing; and at the very least, it will be found to be full of meaning and feeling. There is no better way to know a people than to enter with them into their musical life.”

What mattered to me then was the music, which was so enchanting I could hardly bear it. It had an eerie quality, clairvoyant even, given how long ago and how relatively lo-fi it was recorded. Every emotion was conveyed, sometimes simultaneously; the Madagascan chant that opened the record was so life-affirming, joyful, yet yearning; the Georgian choir conjured up medieval Byzantium in my tiny head, the Greek shepherd tune told an epic and intimate story as old as the war with the Persians that I could not decipher but dreamt about a hundred times.

This world music was not something out there but a vast constellation that we were part of. The songs were rituals. They charted love and mortality, faith and despair and defiance. There were Icelandic greetings and Tibetan laments for the dead. They revealed that all music is folk music, echoing Jesse Jackson’s "We know that music is music" Wattstax speech that Andrew Weatherall sampled on Primal Scream’s ‘Come Together’. There were hints in the sleevenotes – “completely new tunes are seldom born,” how similar the Chinese tune ‘Peace Blossom’ is to the African American spiritual ‘Nobody Knows The Trouble I’ve Seen’ – but I could already tell upon listening that there was a dialectic process to how music from different places could interact, change and develop, even if this was largely more mysterious than materialist.

During lockdown, to snap out of my listening habits and float out of my life and a London basement flat for a while, I returned to Music Of The World’s Peoples, an album I’d long since lost but never forgot. It sounded as startling as it had the first time, even though the world has since changed. In a way, like the treasure trove that is the entire Folkways Smithsonian project, it was an early attempt, not without flaws, to promote the diversity we see championed throughout culture now. Yet it also seemed very different, even antithetical to our times. The more I listened, the more it seemed to highlight that something was amiss, in the gap between what we espouse and what is actually occurring. How is it that a seventy-year-old album sounds as fresh as it does? Juxtaposed with a collection that spans thousands of years and tens of thousands of miles, so much of contemporary culture feels diverse only within narrow parameters – middlebrow, cosmetic, Westerncentric, bourgeois, with class, edge, vernacular and the actual material realities of living conspicuous by their absence.

Perhaps it is a problem with curiosity itself. We may be more like Les Baxter than we think, as much as we might baulk at his culturally insensitive appropriations and fictions. (Sun Ra, for one, found them a rich source of inspiration.) We project what we already believe onto a complex contradictory world. We find only that which we wish to find, and that which confirms our pre-existing biases. Anything that is inconvenient, challenging or beyond comprehension is ignored or hidden. We already have the answers when we should be asking questions and, above all, listening. In the process, a deficit begins to mount between the world and our world to the point where an autochrome from a hundred years ago seems more lifelike than our movies do, where a seventy-year-old album sounds more innovative than virtually anything the algorithms offer us to complement our moods. They do so because they are full of beginnings and not ends. They ask and they listen. And in doing so they remain part of the world and not detached from it. As utopian as Sir Francis Bacon was, he was wise enough to note that “We are much beholden to Machiavelli and others, that write what men do, and not what they ought to do.”

In the 1970s, Carl Sagan was appointed by NASA to compile a gold record that would travel on the Voyager space probe deep into outer space. It would contain a sample of the earth’s musical riches from many cultures. He consulted the folklorist Alan Lomax and eventually the committee put together an album that contained, among others, Javanese gamelan, a Peruvian wedding song, a Navajo night chant alongside Mozart’s 'Queen Of The Night' aria, Beethoven’s Fifth and ‘Johnny B. Goode’. It also included a message of peace from the UN Secretary General of the time Kurt Waldheim. Voyager was fired out into space and is now the furthest manmade object from our planet, having left the Solar System. It may well become the last surviving relic of our species. Since its launch, it has been uncovered that Waldheim had been a Nazi Wehrmacht officer linked to war crimes. This is the cost and the benefit of enquiry - to find things we do not necessarily want to find but which we must, if we are to truly know ourselves and what we are capable of, for good and ill. Albert Kahn knew that true curiosity would mean uncovering the horrors of this world as well as its wonders. The same applies to music. There are many reasons why we choose to sing; happiness is only one of them.