EACH WEEKDAY around 12:30, after finishing my radio show, I spend an hour or so opening packages of albums sent to me by record companies. It seems a bit like Christmas, and I am overwhelmed by the variety of music pouring in from Africa, Latin America, Asia, the Middle East. Colorful jackets announce recordings of rai , zouk , bhangra , soukous , juju , qawwali and sounds from all over the world.
Good local record stores these days are filled with the music of faraway places, and more and more of us seem to be accepting the invitation to become armchair travelers. Listeners who might otherwise mistake lambada for some kind of disease won't hesitate to buy pop star David Byrne's new album, "Rei Momo," and to discover the hottest new Brazilian dance style.
It wasn't always like this. I remember, years ago, playing hooky from UCLA classes and heading over to the Ethnomusicology Library in Schoenberg Hall. At that time, a paltry array of "world music" was available, and only through tiny labels such as Ethnic Folkways, Smithsonian, Library of Congress, Ocora and Nonesuch Explorer. It was decidedly lo-fi stuff, wrapped in stiff jackets with liner notes that read like scholarly tomes. I sat quietly among serious, somewhat nerdish students listening through cheap headphones to field recordings swarming with insect and birds.
But in the past several years, pop artists have begun to explore ethnic music with a feverish intensity, and increasing numbers of listeners, seeking a more eclectic diet than straight-ahead rock 'n' roll, have become fans of so-called World Beat music.
The terms World Music and World Beat were coined in the early 1980s, when record-company executives met in London to figure out how to market the musical melange. "We were getting a lot of letters from people who, after hearing the music on the radio, were wondering where to find it," recalls Roger Armstrong, co-director of Globestyle Records in London. "So we decided to call it World Music to indicate to both retailers and consumers where you could find it in shops."
Globestyle has been a leader in the World Music movement, and among the 50 albums in its current catalogue are Sudanese pop, Colombian cumbias and tarab music from Madagascar. The company launched the career of Israeli superstar Ofra Haza, whose hit "Im Nin Alu," a seductive rendition of a Yemenite prayer in Hebrew topped the German pop charts for nine weeks last summer--proof that music transcends political boundaries.
Yemenite songs sung in Hebrew on German radio? That gives you an idea of the range of World Music, which, if you need a loose definition, is simply that comes to us from other cultures. And World Beat? It's a modern version of the same music, studio-produced and rhythmically inclined. Unlike the recordings made by ethnomusicologists who wandered into rural villages, microphones in hand, these are citified sounds, filtered through several decades of urbanization in the Third World. Much of this music is made in recording studios, often in London and Paris, reflecting the cities' growing multiethnic populations. World Music has several important subtexts, too: It is about the planet getting smaller, the rise of global communication and the introduction of technology to Third World cultures.
World Beat reflects decades of cultural interweaving. During the 1950s, for example, about 200 Cuban 78 r.p.m. recordings made their way to Africa, greatly influencing music there. And the spread of audio cassettes throughout the world sent American rock and soul music--James Brown, Little Richard and Elvis Presley--to Africa. "We're talking about a gigantic melting pot and not only James Brown, Santana, Stevie Wonder and other groups that made American R & B popular in Africa," says Armstrong. "On the east coast of Africa--in Mombasa, Zanzibar and Madagascar--you'll find that Egyptians and Indian film sound tracks have had a strong influence on the music."
Then, in the 1980s, native musics began flowing back to America as a number of Western superstars started playing with and fusing foreign music with rock. The group Talking Heads, currently on sabbatical, used African rhythms on their 1980 album "Remain in Light," before most Americans had heard any African music. Paul Simon helped popularize South African music on his Grammy-winning "Graceland." And the range of influences keeps widening. British rock star Kate Bush uses Bulgarian songs on her new record, "The Sensual World." Peter Gabriel, who spurred the trend, used source music from Pakistan, Senegal, Egypt, Ethiopia, Armenia and elsewhere in his score for Martin Scorcese's "The Last Temptation of Christ." Simon is working with South American musicians for his new record, which is likely to bring a larger audience to Latin American music.