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Major Labels Nosing Around 'World Music' : Sales figures are still low, but record industry sees it as 'next big thing'; Billboard starting world music chart

May 13, 1990|DON SNOWDEN

World Music--often championed as the most vital new direction in pop music--is finally beginning to be taken seriously by the American record business.

Don't expect a stampede of South African, Brazilian or Pakistani artists to crash the pop Top 10 soon. The current sales figures are minuscule compared to big pop sellers--in the 10,000 range for a hot item.

Still, major labels, responding to growing media interest and expanding European sales, are increasingly signing the pop artists from around the world whose records have traditionally been the province of such smaller American companies as Shanachie, subsidiary labels like Is land's Mango, and import specialists like GlobeStyle.

One significant sign of increased industry interest: the debut of a regular world music sales chart in the May 19 issue of Billboard, which hit newsstands this weekend.

"We're going for hard-core world music--everything from reggae artists like Black Uhuru and Yellowman to African titles and even the Bulgarian Voices," said Eric Lowenhar, the compiler of the world music chart for the trade publication.

"This music has been around for a long time and it wasn't selling enough to make the pop charts, but enough to be charted. We're trying to keep away from the Ziggy Marleys or the lambada stuff getting exposure on the pop charts."

The initial Billboard chart features artists working in a wide range of international styles. The artists in the first 15 positions includes Spain's Gipsy Kings, reggae's Black Uhuru, the Bulgarian Voices, Pakistan's Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, South Africa's Hugh Masekela and Miriam Makeba, and the Cajun group Beausoleil.

Paul Simon's 1986 "Graceland" album featuring South African musicians was the catalyst for the current surge, and the advocacy of such prominent rock figures as David Byrne and Peter Gabriel kept the momentum going. The pop chart success of the Gipsy Kings' "Bambaleo" and Kaoma's "Lambada," and world music's increasing influence on the European pop scene sent another commercial signal.

Observers began tabbing world music as another "next big thing" soon after the international success of "Graceland."

"It has the potential to be the next big thing but it's not going to be the next big thing to happen overnight," cautioned Jerry Rappaport, manager of New York-based Mango Records, whose label is represented on the Billboard chart by Zimbabwe's Thomas Mapfumo and the "Groove Yard" reggae compilation. Another Mango artist from Africa, Mali's Salif Keita, is scheduled to appear at the Music Machine on Thursday.

Continued Rappaport: "Anyone looking for mega-sales on this music right out of the box is fooling themselves. This is truly development stuff in the pure sense of the term."

As world music has developed and asserted itself over the last few years, the term has come to embrace the vast spectrum of styles that have developed outside the American/European pop mainstream. It includes reggae and African music, zouk and soca from the Caribbean, rai music from Algeria (spearheaded by singer Cheb Khaled and his collaborator Safy Boutella) and Pakistan's Qawwali style, and American roots forms like Cajun and zydeco. Surprisingly, the Latin pop/salsa field hasn't yet been included under the world music banner.

The geographic net keeps spreading. The "Wild Orchid" sound-track album groups Brazil's Margareth Menezes, soca singer David Rudder, Israeli dance-rock diva Ofra Haza and the German/Arabic group Dissidenten.

The Real World label formed by Peter Gabriel and the World of Music and Dance organization (WOMAD) in England has released albums by artists from Tanzania, Egypt and Cuba. The label's next release, due this summer, features artists from Pakistan, China and Mozambique. Samples of world music artists have become common in the dance/rap world since Haza's voice graced a popular re-mix of Eric B. & Rakim's "Paid in Full" in 1987.

"I got a call the other day from someone who said the really hip aerobics instructors want world-beat music like soca and zouk for their workout tapes," said Randall Grass, vice president of promotion for New Jersey-based Shanachie Records. "Where it was Madonna three years ago or Donna Summer five years ago, now it's soca or lambada--tropical beats."

Brazilian music currently has the highest profile. David Byrne's South American-inspired "Rei Momo" album and the lambada media splash have triggered a tidal wave of Brazilian compilations. Many veteran observers cite the recent glut of world music releases as a potential danger.

"So many people are jumping on the bandwagon and a good deal of inferior records are being released in this country," said Rappaport, who previously ran the international section at Tower Records' Greenwich Village store.

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