If Paul Simon’s The Rhythm of the Saints had been released 10 years ago, there’s a good chance it would have died a dog’s death. Its smooth mixture of American, Brazilian, and South and West African pop would have sounded foreign, an eccentricity that, like most pop eccentricities, might have disappeared without too much comment.
But in the past 10 years the pop-music scene has changed radically. The introduction of world music — the term covers music created outside America and Western Europe, from Bulgaria to Kenya, from Algeria to Transylvania — has altered the pop equation. When King Sunny Ade, the foremost exponent of the drum-driven Nigerian pop style called juju, came to New York in 1982 to perform a frenetic and yet gracefully sensual concert at the Savoy, it was clear after the show that the map of the pop world had to be redrawn.
Then, in 1986, out jumped Simon’s Graceland, a top 10 success that became one of the most acclaimed albums ever by merging mainstream pop with zydeco (the clattering, percussive music of southern Lousiana) and nimble South African pop. Next, cross-cultural experiments by Peter Gabriel and David Byrne set the stage for the American success of the French Gypsy band the Gipsy Kings and the South African vocal group that had first come to U.S. attention on Graceland, Ladysmith Black Mambazo.
Now, four years after all that, the penetration of world styles into the American market is even more profound. At Mango Records, a subsidiary of Island Records, sales of world music are up 100 percent over last year. Byrne, always an indicator of hipness, has started a world music label to be distributed by Warner Bros. Billboard has instituted a world music chart. And National Public Radio has a show, Afropop Worldwide, that is syndicated across the country. World music may not yet be on sale in your local K mart, but it’s now a large — and growing — section at any major urban record store.
In France, where musicians from the country’s former colonies (Zaire and the Caribbean islands of Guadalupe and Martinique especially) have created the most important center of world music, African or Caribbean songs are standard fare on the biggest commercial radio stations. Both there and here, non- Western sounds attract people disaffected with the sometimes canned quality of modern pop. In an era when many of the largest stars learn their craft in recording studios and in front of the camera, most world musicians still cut their teeth working for a real audience; they know how to deliver the thrill of old-fashioned, live musicianship.
And world music’s growth mirrors a political reality. For most of the past 90 years America and Europe have dictated pop-music tastes worldwide; now the currents of influence have started changing direction. For anybody who has fallen in love with the turbulent, intertwined guitars of the Zairian pop music known as soukous or the lilting sounds of Brazilian pop, the new competition to sway the global market is both welcome and exciting. Even if world music doesn’t take over, it may well prove reinvigorating-and bring a sense of discovery and unexpected pleasure back to the big but often jaded realm of American pop.