Michael Church: The BBC's growing debasement of world music

This is not the music of the world: it's music filched from other cultures for Western consumption
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The Independent Online

"And the winner is ..." They'll be having one hell of a party at the Sage, Gateshead next Saturday, as Tinariwen belt out their electrified desert blues, Amparanoia administer their blast of club-flamenco, Clotaire K delivers his Mediterranean brand of hip-hop, and sundry other luminaries from the 2005 Radio 3 world music awards do their ceremonial lap of honour. A triumphant occasion, blessed by the media, reflecting happy punters, booming record sales, and a galaxy of new-minted stars: with world music on a roll, why shouldn't every day be party time?

Looked at more closely, however, that triumph proves hollow. Listen to what's being played - if you can hear it through the din produced by the massed banks of speakers considered essential for any self-respecting world-music gig. Have you ever wondered how world-music "critics" manage to tease out aesthetic subtleties when reviewing ear-bashing experiences at the Barbican, the Shepherd's Bush Empire, or the sweetly-named Brixton Fridge? The truth, of course, is that they're not reviewing those concerts at all: they're reviewing the CDs the concerts have been staged to promote.

It's one of the great mysteries of our time that people who pride themselves on their fine-tuned requirements for recorded sound should pretend to enjoy the aural sledgehammer of live events, where ear-plugs actually allow you to hear more of the music than you'd hear without them.

But set audibility aside and consider the material itself. What is this "world music"? With very few exceptions, the groups favoured by Radio 3 offer street-smart fusions - local styles with an internationalised electronic top-dressing, reflecting a universal aspiration to make it big in the West. We're talking, by and large, about global pop.

Nobody should blame Sevara Nazarkhan for abandoning the music she grew up with in her native Uzbekistan - she can still on occasion sing it beautifully - but the club fodder she now purveys is as much a dead-end as the heavy-metal throat-singing stunts of Tuvan mega-stars Huun Huur Tu, or the electronic games of their once-brilliant compatriot Sainkho Namchylak.

Of course these musicians had to break out of their poverty, and they had to explore beyond their traditional musical boundaries, but by catering to debased tastes, they've lost something vital in the process. This is not the music of the world: it's music filched from other cultures, and filtered for consumption by the West. It's significant that Radio 3's leading partner in these awards is Womex, which represents the interests of the record industry.

One ironical side-effect of this world-music boom is that record companies specialising in the real music of the world - traditional music recorded in traditional contexts - are now in difficulties. The pile-em-high, sell-em-fast policies of the big shops mean that the cds of musicologically top-notch labels like Ocora and Institut du Monde Arabe are being forced off the shelves.

Despite the self-justifying claim, on Radio 3's celebratory CD, that it's "almost impossible to find pure, unadulterated roots music", a surprisingly large number of the world's musical languages do survive - even if, like verbal languages under the onslaught of English, they're under increasing threat from the music of MTV.

Go into the mountains of Georgia and you'll find the same rugged harmonies which Tamerlane encountered six centuries ago; behind closed doors in Hanoi you can still find gossamer-delicate ca tru song; in bandit-ridden south Albania, farmers and bus drivers still celebrate big events with their spine-tingling local polyphony. It may be true that Western money has saved great musicians in Senegal, Cuba, and Romania from poverty and obscurity, but none of the above traditions has any subsidy: if they go under, it will be as casualties of blind cultural imperialism.

Many of the Italian musics which that great musicologist Alan Lomax collected in the Fifties may be extinct, but young Italian enthusiasts are now reviving what they can. Meanwhile, a remarkable rescue-job is under way on the wonderful indigenous musics of Central Asia, thanks to an inspired initiative by the Aga Khan Development Network. Schools are being set up where traditional masters (and mistresses) pass on the styles which the Soviets failed to stamp out, and a series of Smithsonian recordings will now preserve what might otherwise have been lost for ever. I'm not suggesting that the BBC should embark on anything so bold, but it could play its part in sustaining the world's musical ecosystem - if it chose to do so.

Lucy Duran celebrates the ancient music of Mali, and Andy Kershaw pushes out musical frontiers beyond the politically acceptable ones, but when did we last hear a radio series devoted to those other classical musics which are just as venerable as ours? Why do the Proms limit themselves to one pathetic piece of "world crossover" per year? And when will Radio 3 realise that, by implicitly making possession of a CD (plus a PR machine) a condition of entry to its competition, it is systematically freezing out the very people it should be straining every nerve to include? We might expect the BBC to do more than merely collude in the manufacture of second-rate stars.