The Clash of World Music

Submitted by Adam D. Ketchum on Sunday, 10/10/2010, at 6:48 PM

            We are all familiar with the concept of “world music”.  This pseudo-genre is the amalgamation of different musical traditions from all over the world.   The problem is that is isn’t a natural classification of music, but instead a pointless label that serves as nothing but in instrument of simplification for people can’t be bothered to investigate the true origins of the various sonic elements present in “world music”. 

For example, suppose one were to listen to the song “Sweet Lullaby” by Deep Forest, one would hear this “pat me on the back I’m so globally cosmopolitan” sound that is completely removed from the original context it was drawn from.  In the case of “Sweet Lullaby” the inspiration comes from a recording of a mother named Afunakwa singing an actual lullaby to her baby.  This original recording is pleasing because it is tender, raw and sweet.  It is in short, it is filled with real humanity.  The DeepForest song on the other hand, sounds cheap (which isn’t to say it is under-produced, quite the opposite, the cheapness is a result of a lack of artistic integrity) and generic.  It sounds like it was made to be sold, not as an expression of artistry.  Worse yet, they offer no acknowledgement to their original inspiration.  This feels troublesome, and it should.  DeepForest capitalizes on the work of Afunakwa.  At best she receives some appreciation from those investigative enough to dig into the origins.

This is an example of a blatantly obvious degeneration of original sounds.  I is an instance of taking something real and turning it into a dry, formulamatic, commercialization of its former self.  A good example of a gray area in the dissemination of music across the world would be comparing the song “Paper Planes” by eclectic musician M.I.A. (a.k.a. Mathangi "Maya" Arulpragasam) and one of its sonic sources, The Clash’s “Straight to Hell”.

What distinguishes DeepForest’s appropriation of Afunakwa’s lullaby from M.I.A.’s sampling of The Clash?  To begin with, there is a difference in socioeconomic standing that is present in relationship between DeepForest and Afunakwa (which was described above) that is not present in the relationship between M.I.A. and The Clash.  Both M.I.A. and The Clash are successful recording industry insiders.  Furthermore, they have political ideologies that would be sympathetic to each other.  M.I.A. was involved in the liberation of the Tamil minority on Sri Lanka, and The Clash was a leftist punk band that was high critical of establishment political power structures.

What is more to the point though, is the fact that The Clash themselves are proprietors of “world music” themselves.  How can one degrade the sound of The Clash through appropriation if their very own sound was appropriated from various sources as well (the obvious example would be reggae and ska music).  The answer is that one cannot.  M.I.A.’s use of the opening rift in The Clash song is no more wrong than The Clashes own use of Jamaican music.

What this boils down to is who is using what and why?  In the case of M.I.A. and The Clash, the who are two sets of people from similar socioeconomic standing with similar access to resources.  The what, is the use of particular segments of music, which the “original” appropriated anyway.  The why is to draw attention to their subscribed political ideology.  There is a lot of overlap in all three of these questions, and thus we don’t feel any sort of discomfort in the idea of the appropriation.  It seems proper.

Conversely, in the case of DeepForest, and Afunakwa, you have people coming from vastly different backgrounds, with different motivations.  DeepForest appropriates the traditional lullaby for its own purposes, and in doing so strip it of its humanity.  Despite the similarities in the what (which are the lyrics and general harmony of the lullaby), nothing else over laps.  Even the original rawness of Afunakwa’s traditional rendition has been lost in the high production values of the new-aged schlock DeepForest is hawking at us.