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World Music

Charting a Popular Course to Top 10

October 09, 1998|DON HECKMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

What's hot and what's not in world music? If you believe the Billboard magazine charts, the most popular world music recordings are Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli's "Romanza," Canadian singer-composer Loreena McKennitt's "Book of Secrets" and "Buena Vista Social Club" by Ry Cooder and a band of veteran Cuban musicians.

How popular? The Bocelli recording has been No. 1 for 26 consecutive weeks, and all three CDs have been on the world music chart for more than a year. Which hasn't exactly allowed room for any new efforts to break through to the top spots, although "Cantos De Amor," the new album by the perennially popular Gipsy Kings, has risen to the No. 3 position in the first seven weeks of its release.

The other Billboard world music Top 10 are Angelique Kidjo's "Oremi," Mickey Hart's "Supralingua," eponymous albums from Gaelic Storm (from the movie "Titanic") and the Canadian Irish group Leahy, the Afro-Cuban All-Stars' "A Todo Cuba Le Gusta" and Michael Flatley's "Lord of the Dance." And the Top 15 includes albums by Mandy Patinkin and a collection of songs inspired by "The Lion King."

It is, at best, a curious list. If Bocelli, for example, belongs on a world music chart, then why not Pavarotti? And if McKennitt, a Canadian more commonly associated with folk and New Age music, is present, then why not Yanni, who is Greek?

Fortunately, the Billboard charts, which are "compiled from a national sample of retail store and rack sales reports collected, compiled and provided by SoundScan," do not have the final word. Music Boulevard, the popular Internet record retailer, has a somewhat different world music chart, based upon its own retail sales figures.

Its No. 1 album is Peter Tosh's "Legalize It," followed by Colombian singer Shakira's "Donde Estan Los Ladrones," Enrique Iglesias' "Cosas Del Amor," and albums by the Gipsy Kings, Gaelic Storm, Ricky Martin, Mana, Bob Marley and Leahy. There's no sign of Bocelli or McKennitt, and the chart is dominated by four hugely successful Latin acts--Shakira, Iglesias, Mana and Martin--while the Gipsy Kings, Gaelic Storm and Leahy duplicate their Billboard chart appearance, and the presence of Tosh and Marley underscores the continuing vitality of Jamaican music.

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But the Billboard and Music Boulevard charts are similar on several counts: They reflect the tendency of the American entertainment media to sign and promote world music acts that have a pop orientation; they reveal the public's continuing fascination with Irish music (enhanced by the success of "Titanic"); and they indicate the growing importance of Latin acts in the domestic U.S. record market.

Does that mean that pop elements, Irish melodies and Latin rhythms are what's hot in world music?

Not completely. A look at two other charts provides a somewhat broader perspective. The Virgin Megastores roots chart, for example, which includes folk and world music recordings, and which is also based upon its sales figures, includes in its top listings Cuba's Buena Vista Social Club, the Afro-Cuban All-Stars and Ruben Gonzalez, Africa's Baaba Maal and Ladysmith Black Mambazo, and Jamaica's Ernest Ranglin. Unlike the Billboard and Music Boulevard listings, this selection provides more emphasis on traditional rather than current pop music elements.

And Europe's latest world music chart, compiled from returns from a panel of European disc jockeys and journalists, takes an even stronger slant toward traditional music. Its Top 10 is headed by Baaba Maal, followed by Cuba's Cubanismo, Finland's Varttina, Brazil's new discovery Virginia Rodrigues and Spain's Kepa Junkera & Friends. Ranglin makes another appearance, and there are other performers from Italy, Madagascar and South Africa.

The European chart, which reflects radio airplay of world music recordings, reveals a receptivity to a wide array of styles and cultures. Less oriented toward Latin music, European listeners also seem more responsive to African sounds--perhaps because of geographic proximity, perhaps because of the presence of so many African artists in European media centers such as London and Paris. In addition, radio stations in Europe have traditionally been willing to afford similar, often side-by-side, programming exposure to world music, jazz, classical and pop.

So what's hot and what's not in world music? It seems to depend on where you live, and what the popularity charts in your area encompass. But it's clear that a process that places an Italian tenor at the top of a world music chart creates a misperception of the nature of world music--which is, in the most basic sense, simply the other 80% of the music in the world that isn't jazz, classical or American and British pop.

The upside is that, regardless of charts, world music performances in Los Angeles are drawing overflow crowds (even when barely publicized) to concerts ranging from Indian, Chinese and Middle Eastern music to sounds from a multiplicity of cultures in Africa and South America.

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