For years now, American writer and musicologist, Elijah Wald has been on a quest to search out and record the wealth of the different musics of the world, many of them little known. Wald was world music critic for the Boston Globe for over a dozen years, and is currently teaching in the musicology department at UCLA.
His previous books include the award-winning Narcocorrido, an exploration of the Mexican pop ballads of drugs and politics, and Escaping the Delta, a new look at blues history. He is a performing musician known for his work in Congolese and Bahamian acoustic guitar styles.
He has a new book out titled Global Minstrels: Voices of World Music. Published by Routledge (ISBN: 0-415-97930-7), the book provides an insight into world music though conversations with many of the scene's most active and articulate performers.
If you have wanted to explore new artists from all over the world, but didn't know where to begin, this book will give you a jump start. It provides an accessible introduction to musical styles from five continents and a view into the lives and concerns of some of the artists who have brought these music forms to international attention.
The musicians profiled include stars like Caetano Veloso, Ravi Shankar, Paco de Lucía, and King Sunny Ade, as well as lesser-known musicians who work largely within the United State's growing immigrant communities. The artists speak about their lives and work and their stories help to show readers, both where the world's many music forms have come from, and where they are going.
Global Minstrels is concise and easily digested; it is organized by continent and countries, and features cultural and musical history, along with an index at the end of the book containing key recordings by the artists featured in the book.
The following is an interview with Wald around the creation of his book and his opinions on related to world music.
[Phil Reser] What inspired you to write Global Minstrels?
[Elijah Wald] I was the world music critic for the Boston Globe for 15 years and had interviewed all of these people, they were really great interviews. Since it was a daily paper, I was limited to a 50 line piece. I kept thinking that if I somehow, some time, could do these stories the way I wanted to. Basically, the day finally came when I had done all of these other books, had a good reputation and I could get a publisher interested in doing a collection of these types of interviews. Of course, I had to think about who I wanted to add on to the list of artists that I had already written about, so I did another half dozen fresh stories just for the book. And the rest were just my favorites out of 15 years of work.
[Phil Reser] Did you feel that out of the books out there on the subject of world music, that you could fill a gap?
[Elijah Wald] Absolutely, I'm a little surprised by that, there are all sorts of books on all specific types of music and good guides to world music, but what I had was an awful lot of just straight interviews. I'm fascinated by just how musicians talk about what they do, and how these different musicians were connected to the same things. I sometimes think there are two kinds of people. The people that see differences and the ones that see connections with things and I'm very much in that second group. And so I'm fascinated by the extent to which, if you talk to Paco de Lucia, it's very close to when you talk to Ali Akbar Khan or Ravi Shankar about what they do. And how this goes from society, to society and onward. Pop, folk and classical musicians, there's just a lot of overlaps in what is involved in being a musician. So I enjoyed trying to bring some of that out.
[Phil Reser] What was the biggest challenge in putting together the material in the book?
[Elijah Wald] Frankly, the biggest challenge was what I would leave out. I had very nice interviews with some artists and when I read through what other musicians were saying, I would find an overlap in what people were saying. So, I just had to leave some artists out that I felt were important contributors and in some cases, those musicians were more famous then some that I left in there. But what I really decided was that I wanted the best conversations, so that Sir Victor Uwaifo, who almost no one has heard of outside of Western Africa but was one of the founders of big band highlife and just talked about it wonderfully. He got in and others that gave me good interviews but said pretty standard things that they have for many press situations did not get in the book.
[Phil Reser] What are the most common things you have found among all of the world musicians you interviewed?
[Elijah Wald] Well, I suppose it was partly how I was choosing people for the book but the thing that I found fascinating was that no matter how folkloric they were or how much they were trying to be pop stars, all of them were trying to strike this balance between making their music contemporary and giving it international appeal, and at the same time hanging on to what they felt was it's roots and culture. I learned that everybody wants to feel like the music they are making speaks to the present and also that the music they are making comes from somewhere. Again, that's partly driven by my choices; I wasn't interested in musicians that I saw as producing some sort of non-rooted fusion that somebody was calling world music. I was really looking for musicians who gave me a sense of place.
[Phil Reser] What got you into writing about music and do you enjoy it as much as playing the guitar and singing?
[Elijah Wald] It also gave me an income in my life which was badly needed. I am trying to strike a balance between being a musician and writing about music, however, I haven't figured out what that is yet. The bottom line of all this is I reached a point that on an average evening, there was someone that I would rather listen to than me. I think that for the vast majority of musicians, you do reach a point that you know your not going to be Louie Armstrong or Ray Charles and nothing resembling that. You realize, if you're sane, the limits of your own potential contribution. I just felt there was more of a hole in the world that I could fill as a writer. Obviously, I still play music and if I made a full-time living off my music, I probably wouldn't write. So music remains my first love. I actually haven't gotten very far away from it, with the direction I have taken with writing.
[Phil Reser] What got you so interested in world music?
[Elijah Wald] I suppose it was boredom. I first went to the Boston Globe to cover only gospel and blues and there came a moment after a certain number of blues shows that I just had nothing new to say. I still enjoyed the shows but I had nothing new to say about them after doing dozens of previous shows. And the joy of the world music thing turning up was that twice a week I was doing pieces on stuff that I knew nothing about. So I had to go to the library and get a book and study up and try and listen to their material and it was all new to me. I think all of us in the west that tried seriously to deal with the world music wave when it came, we were starting from ground zero, and we knew nothing. And so, it was terrifically exciting learning about these whole new worlds every week.
[Phil Reser] Do you feel that music that is played on American Top 40 is representative of our culture and what other people around the world, think we are all about?
[Elijah Wald] In a sense yes, it certainly represents aspects of our culture. It doesn't represent the whole breath of our culture, I'm not sure it does it any worse than it has in the past. My impression is that American popular music hasn't declined any since I've grown a lot older and hear things from a different age perspective. Honestly, I don't think this is a terrible time for American music. Rap quite honestly, has gone around the world, allowing people to add things to it. In some ways better than jazz or rock ever did. I mean, the rap that I hear coming out of India, Africa or Europe is much more based on their sounds than when jazz and rock invaded all of those countries. I think in a way, in terms of the effect of American popular music on the rest of the world, this is a good time. The flip side, unfortunately, is that Americans are still quite unconscious of what's going on outside of our country; that I would love to see change.
[Phil Reser] We hear the terms World Fusion and World Beat as well as World Music; can you help with clearing up the definitions of these terms?
[Elijah Wald] They're all marketing terms and don't really mean a hell of a lot. World music, as far as I'm concerned, there are people that hate that term. It's like Big Bill Broonzy said about folk music, 'It's all folk music, I've never heard a horse sing it?' So it's all world music, what else would it be? There's sort of one feeling that it's a way for white Europeans and Americans to look at the outside as one place where that music comes from and we're the other place where the rest of music like jazz, rock, folk and blues come from. I thought about this when I wrote the book, there is a reality in the United States about all of this music that's been coming in from outside, in a way that just wasn't like it was before. What's available to us now is very different than what was ever available to us before. And what music makes it to the U.S. says as much about us as it does the music.
For example, if you go to South Africa and you want to see what's happening in music, the names will pretty much not overlap at all with the South Africans that tour in the U.S. The South Africans that tour in the U.S. are people like Ladysmith Black Mambazo, whereas if you go there, you will find the music of 30 years ago. It's the same with Buena Vista Social Club out of Cuba; the Cubans were mystified that we were interested in these old guys. So, I felt like that there is a real phenomenon of Americans and Europeans really listening to an incredibly broad range of styles. And that's due to everything from the internet and globalization stuff to the fact that rap has completely alienated a whole bunch of pop listeners and forced them to look elsewhere for their music.
[Phil Reser] Taking into account that every country or region has its various geographical and cultural uniqueness; do you believe there are basic elements that create regional music styles?
[Elijah Wald] Of course, to give you a very simple example, you don't have large drums where you don't have big trees. The African Savanna does not produce drumming cultures, whereas the desert will. You don't have stringed instruments where you don't have the bow and arrow. You don't have electric guitars where you don't have electricity. And then you have languages that create different sounds. How people dance and how important dancing is to a culture create certain types of sounds. There are cultures where dancing is terribly important, Africa for a very clear example. And there are cultures like in Asia, where people dance but it's not what holds the society together. Whereas in Africa, villages may get together for dancing or that all group activities include dancing. That is going to create a very different style of music than in Asia where the culture doesn't work that way.
[Phil Reser] What do you think are the easiest and most difficult parts of listening to music from cultures outside your own?
[Elijah Wald] In some ways, both the easiest and most difficult is trying to figure out what you like. There's so much of it and it all sounds strange at first and trying to find a way in to it all. I find that a lot of people are trying to find ways to like music that in fact, bores them. I think in a way, the trickiest thing is just finding that way into the different music that is out there. And to me, live performance is the key; otherwise it's hard to get into a foreign music. If you just hear it on a CD, you're just hearing it as sound. I think you must hear it live and if possible, to hear and see it in the communities that the music comes from. It's a completely different thing to go to a Latin show in a Latin neighborhood then to see them come to you and everybody is sitting and staring at them and can't clap on the beat. And there's nothing at all wrong with not being able to clap on the beat because in most cases they can't clap on our beats either. It's not that we are inferior; it's just a different experience and perception of things that different cultures have.
[Phil Reser] When you look at the roots of American music, is there any style that was created without the incorporation or influence of sounds from some other part of the world?
[Elijah Wald] I suppose by definition, I would have to say no, we all come out of Africa, right? Well, lets see, there is American Indian music that has not been influenced by Europeans, but there are damn few of them and nobody listens to the music except traditional Indian people; because frankly, that's not the kind of music, that most of us would want to listen to. In a sense, you might say that world music has always been composed of a fusion of different styles over time. James Brown more recently influenced a lot of African music, so it's been circular throughout the history of different regions, to some extent. It has always been that way in our world. Take Cuban music, which was already Spain, plus jazz, plus Africa; or West African pop, which was made up of the elements of Africa, plus Cuban, plus James Brown.
[Phil Reser] Why would people listen to songs with lyrics you don't understand?
[Elijah Wald] The short answer to that is how many people listen to lyrics anyway? Quite honestly, I'm a little puzzled by why that is such a barrier. Ask people to tell you the lyrics of the songs they dance to. The number of people that can tell you is really small. They don't care whether it's English or Turkish. It is a barrier for some people but one that can be gotten over fairly easily, which has been proved by the way American music has gone around the world.
[Phil Reser] Have musical instruments played a role with listeners becoming interested in music outside of their traditional culture?
[Elijah Wald] For some people these different instruments may draw them in and with others, they may have problems with them. As we saw in the 60's, LSD and the sitar fit together perfectly. On the other hand, I still know people that can't stand to listen to the music of saxophones; it's basically all about taste. Frankly, the use of a diversity of instruments is, to a great extent, coincidental.
[Phil Reser] What do you think are the most important things the average person can gain from venturing out and listening to music from other parts of the world?
[Elijah Wald] Honestly, the biggest thing people will find out through listening to music from all around the world is how similar people are on our planet.