Opinion: Charting the routes of world music

Posted on March 23, 2012 by

Credit: Carlos Pericas

This piece was originally written for Independent blogs. There was a similar blog post on the Guardian today too. 

World music. To some it’s a long-defunct marketing invention, a crude catch-all for bringing global folk styles – and numerous dodgy attempts at fusion – under one pointless umbrella. Questioning the validity of the term is not new. Mark Hudson’s 1998 book The Music in my Headsatirised the world music phenomenon. But it’s worth looking again at the argument. I would argue that, while it undeniably has its limits, in this age of globalisation world music is an attractively loose term for describing music that crosses cultural boundaries.

Take Roberto Fonseca, here pictured in a boldly exposed portrait on his new album, YO. Fonseca is an effortlessly brilliant Cuban jazz pianist, a leader of the post-Buena Vista Social Club generation. His music is rooted in the island’s music and dance styles, an aural heritage as rich anywhere in the world. Why not describe Fonseca’s music as what it is: Cuban, or indeed jazz? Well, that only explains where the music is now, not where it came from.

For me, world music is all about migration and its cultural effects, and Fonseca’s music is a good example of why this is important. Cuban music, dance and culture – and indeed jazz – is the result of centuries-old transatlantic trade routes, of journeys criss-crossing from Spain and West Africa to the Caribbean and North America. Fonseca himself was brought up in the Santería faith, a belief system that combines West African Yoruba and Roman Catholic traditions.

So it’s not a surprise that, a few albums into his career, his mastery of traditional Cuban forms firmly established, Fonseca’s attention has turned to the other side of the ocean with YO. He’s not the only Cuban artist to have created a Cuban-African record recently. Afrocubism, a Malian-Cuban collaboration of the old guard, was released on Word Circuit Records a couple of years ago. While that album was a laidback exploration of the grooves, rhythms and melodies that have journeyed from Mali to Cuba and back again, Fonseca’s new record is a more wide-ranging, ambitious project.

Supported by a who’s who of West African music talent – including instrumentalists Baba Sissoko and Sekou Kouyate and singer Fatoumata Diawara – the record effortlessly combines the Malian Griot tradition or trance-like Gnawa with Fonseca’s sympathetic piano playing. It’s not all about Africa though. Fonseca balances acoustic playing with careful use of electronica, and presents his pan-West African ideas alongside (and in my opinion unadvisedly) jazz-funk and soul.

YO is a stylistic crash course. But it works both because of Fonseca’s talent for combining spiritual and streetwise atmospheres to create inventive music, and because he is channelling that tradition of cross-cultural innovation. This is what world music is all about: charting the migration of people and music, and in the process, hopefully understanding a little more about how people and places come together to produce culture.

Roberto Fonseca’s UK tour comes to the Barbican Centre on Monday night. 

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Posted in: Jazz, Opinion, World/Folk