The Importance of Global Music (and Where to Start Listening)
Making a case for listening to global music, as well as extremely brief reviews of six potential starting places.
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It is almost impossible to comprehend how large and diverse our world is. As individuals, there is a limit on the perspectives we can individually reach, especially when the media is dominated by American and British cultures––particularly from a musical lens. On occasion, global music influences creep their way into the American and British musical canon; notably, The Talking Heads’ afrobeat rhythms and the Beatles’ and Rolling Stones’ iconic sitar melodies. However, while the Beatles’ “Love You To” and the Talking Heads’ “The Great Curve” are fantastic pieces of music, these classic syntheses are the exception to the rule, and they are so thoroughly watered down from their origins that they are nearly indistinguishable. It's important to highlight those that give more than a faithful interpretation of culture––authenticity only goes as far as personal connection. Simply put, it's well worth the effort to venture out into unfamiliar territories and try listening to some global music. Fortunately, with the advent of streaming, it's never been easier to reach across the world and select from the plethora of aesthetics and styles it has to offer.
Firstly, it might be productive to familiarize yourself with some of the keystones of global music. American saxophonist Stan Getz and Brazilian bossa nova guitarist João Gilberto’s seminal 1964 classic “Getz/Gilberto” creates a warm, textured, and universally appealing period piece that lets the listener absorb soothing Brazilian folk rhythms and fantastic supplemental saxophone ostinato phrases. It also sports the superlative rendition of Frank Sinatra’s “Girl from Ipanema,” which is one of few songs that is humanly impossible to dislike. Next, Nigerian afrobeat multi-instrumentalist Fela Kuti’s masterpiece “Zombie” (1977) is one of the most forward-thinking jazz-funk albums ever created. The crisp drums and lavish horn sections still sound fresh nearly half a century after the album’s release, and the compositional risks taken were so influential that they define the genre of afrobeat to this day. Finally, Japanese pioneer Taeko Ohnuki’s defining triumph “Mignonne” (1978) fuses jazz and pop seamlessly, creating a blissful, funky, and infinitely memorable smash success. Today, it's cited as one of the centerpieces of the city pop genre, which has recently been rising in popularity.
However, it’s not necessary to go back to the ‘70s for excellent global music. Just this year, there have been plenty of interesting and outstanding releases from outside the States and United Kingdom. Belgian group Fievel Is Glauque has one of the best releases of the year so far with “God’s Trashmen Sent Right to the Mess” (2021), their take on incredibly catchy and dynamic jazz-pop. Aided by lead vocalist Ma Clément’s French accent, “Trashmen” aesthetically conjures imagery of a chic coffee house band playing live music, but the brief songwriting and potent performances elevate it far beyond the stereotypical lounge slouch jams. South African band Urban Village fuses regional folk music with sparse rock instrumentation to create approachable and harmonious vignettes of South African culture on “Udondolo” (2021). The word “udondolo” roughly translates to “walking stick,” which is appropriate because “udondolo” sounds like a storied, sage, knotty walking stick taking you along on its travels, even if its Zulu lyricism is incomprehensible to most of its listeners. For the adventurous, perhaps “Míng Míng” (2021) by Chinese artist Otay:onii will be of interest. It combines avant-garde art pop with heavier industrial tones and even Chinese folk music. The execution is suffocatingly heavy and pans into a chilling, cerebral, skeletal suspension to keep the tension with mastery. According to the album’s Bandcamp page, Míng is “a place between our world and the other world, where souls wander around before they take turns to reincarnate.” The purgative atmosphere created by this project vividly simulates that place.
As amazing as these albums are, they’re just a taste of the infinitely wide variety of global music that’s out there. These selections are meant merely to kindle interest in music from outside our comfort zones and find new ones, wherever they may be. Ultimately, the value we get from art is unique to ourselves, but it can never hurt to push our boundaries and reevaluate our perspectives through music. Happy listening!