Talk about a small world

Poor sales haven't stopped the world-music industry staging its own awards show. But does it deserve it? asks Phil Meadley

When Radio 3 succeeded in luring the Hollywood heartthrob Johnny Depp and Blur's Damon Albarn to the first Awards for World Music in 2002, the notion of "world music" seemed to be back in vogue. Depp presented gypsy band Taraf de Haidouks with an award, while Albarn had just completed his Mali Music project with Afel Boucoum.

But has the world music scene moved on since then? Well, the success of Buena Vista Social Club and albums from the likes of Orchestra Baobab and Orlando "Chachaito" Lopez, boded well for a resurgence of interest in music sung in different languages. The same could be said for the success of Portuguese Fado singer Mariza, and the Algerian singer-songwriter Souad Massi. Surely world music was starting to claw its way out of the specialist racks to wider popularity?

Well, no. Suddenly, the major music stores, such as HMV, saw the huge potential of DVD sales, and the amount of floor space given over to specialist racks was sharply reduced, with the onus on stocking titles with guaranteed sales potential.

Any record label executive worth their salt will tell you that you can have as much critical acclaim as you like, but if an album sells next to nothing then it counts for very little. And the reality is that most world music albums do indeed sell next to nothing. A look at recent world music award nominations bears testimony to this fact. Sales of the Radio 3 Critics Album of the Year award winner, Rokia Traore, sold fewer than 3,000 copies in the UK of her recent Bowmboi. The much-hyped Klezmer breakbeat outfit Oi Va Voi sold fewer than 4,800 CDs. This being the case, aren't the World Music Awards a false platform? At least the over-blown Brits and Mobos are based on genuine popularity and sales figures representing sizeable public interest.

"The nominations for the awards are decided in Womex [the largest world music expo] by a very small number of people," states London Live presenter Charlie Gillett. "The trouble is that nobody can say what is or isn't world music. It can't really be categorised. The other anomaly is that the Critics Poll is run by specialist magazine fRoots, and many of the voters aren't even interested in world music, they are ostensibly folk music diehards."

Gillett's wariness of the awards also stretches to Radio Three's coverage of world music. "If you listen to Lucy Duran's World Routes programme she continually moves subjects and you have no reinforcing effect on the tracks you play, whereas in my case I can become obsessed with a track and play it three or four times."

Gillett believes the natural radio station for world music is Radio 2. "Some world music sells eight times as much as blues," he states, exasperatedly. "On Radio 2 you have specialist folk, country, blues and jazz programmes, but you don't have world music. The truth is that people always catch up after the event. When Muddy Waters first came out he wasn't really acknowledged. It wasn't until bands like the Rolling Stones championed his music that he became hip. The truth is that world music is still very much an underground phenomenon." This sentiment is echoed by ex-Radio 1 presenter Andy Kershaw, who saw his natural home as being at Radio 2, but was quickly snapped up by Radio 3 controller Roger Wright.

"Things have definitely moved on," states Kershaw when discussing the growth of world music in the UK. "Some people say that it reached its peak in the Eighties. That was when I was playing bands like the Bhundu Boys or Ali Farka Touré next to REM. I had the view that this is just pop music from other countries and I wanted to make it a normal part of the musical landscape of this country. It reached a point where it wasn't just a craze or a fad, and I think we've gone beyond that now in terms of mixing contemporary styles. For example Algerians are among the best at mixing their music with dance, dub, raga, etc."

Famed producer Joe Boyd believes that one of the biggest problems is the amount of money invested into promoting fusion acts. "I find the new direction pretty depressing because fusions are beginning to dominate. Souad Massi is a good example of this with her singer-songwriter clichés. There's a fascination for decorating repetitive beats with something more rhythmically exotic. The Gotan Project is a perfect example, and I can't listen to their blend of modern beats with a tango flavour.

"To my mind, record labels are putting loads of effort into fusion but there's no evidence that it actually works, unlike the Buena Vista Social Club or Les Mystere Des Voix Bulgares whose acoustic-based albums actually sell. You can't really appeal to younger audiences because they are looking for a soundtrack to their lives in their own language. It's a false obsession because it falls between two stalls, unlike someone like World Circuit's Nick Gold, who has core acoustic values whose waves splash out to a wider audience."

This is a view that Kershaw disagrees with: "I love cross- fertilisation. If you were strictly purist then great guitarists like Franco would never have been able to pick up a guitar. When I spent a lot of time with the Bhundu Boys in the late-Eighties you would hear jams of Beatles and Eagles covers mixed with Zimbabwean music.

"The Buena Vista album was one of the dullest Cuban albums I'd heard in many a year. It was a properly marketed and beautifully packaged album of geriatric musicians in Havana with a dash of Ry Cooder thrown in. It appealed to the middle-class intelligentsia - but it was very dull. I'd take the view that leaping in to bed with world and dance would enrich both parties.

"I remember saying on radio that one of these days a dance producer would have the imagination to put Soukous guitar in the mix. Then someone actually did and it was great."

TOP 10 WORLD ALBUMS, 2003

1 Gotan Project La Revancha del Tango (XL): 37,135

2 Buena Vista Social Club Buena Vista Social Club (World Circuit): 34,177

3 Bebel Gilberto Tanto Tempo (Eastwest): 31,821

4 Nitin Sawhney Human (V2): 23,336

5 Ibrahim Ferrer Buenos Hermanos (World Circuit): 15,793

6 Orchestra Baobab Specialist in All Styles (World Circuit): 10,695

7 Manu Chao Radio Bemba (Virgin): 9,076

8 Mariza Fado Curvo (EMI): 8,703

9 Afrocelts Seed (Realworld): 8,583

10 Youssou N'Dour Nothing's in Vain (Nonesuch): 6,467

Figures represent total nationwide sales for last year. Thanks to Steve and Quinton at Union Square Music

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