World music, anyone? Didn’t think so. A lonely legion of public radio DJs flog what sounds like one stripe or another of American pop, edged by exotic embellishments and sung in a foreign tongue. For textbook examples, listen to Marco Werman’s music picks on PRI’s The World. You’ve got your `world’ hip hop, your `world’ techno-dance music. Plenty of slushy New Age `exotica’ is palmed off as world music. As a genre tag, could `world music’ be more meaningless? No wonder there’s no audience for it!
Still, the occasional world music `flavor of the month’ surfaces. In March, it was Yasmine Hamdan. The catalyst? She has a song in the latest Jim Jarmusch movie, Only Lovers Left Alive. NPR waxed rhapsodic: She sings in Arabic! She uses spare techno production. She’s multilingual, but….did we mention she sings in Arabic?
Curiosity piqued, I found Yasmine on YouTube. She’s young. She’s sexy. A singer? Not so much. Her underwhelming vocals reinforce a sense of style over substance. She bares her midriff. She bumps. She grinds. One performance video shows her working a crowd in Berlin. There are surely ethnic Arabs in that city, yet everyone in the crowd looks German.
You needn’t be Edward Said to catch a whiff of `orientalism’ in Yasmine’s success. Ages before we saw burkas, our ancestors gawked at Little Egypt’s sideshow shimmy. Yasmine can thank her for an `oriental’ stereotype she’s shrewdly updated.
There are doubtless more Yasmines waiting in the `world music’ wings. Thankfully, anyone with curiosity and a computer can find authentic voices of other cultures who will never become world music darlings but who have huge followings at home.
A personal favorite is Glykeria of Greece. YouTube lets us follow her from small TV studio tavernas in the 1970s to recent stadium spectacles. She was never less than supremely confident in her power as a singer or her soul connection to the rembetika tradition. (Rembetika has been likened to blues for both feeling and subject matter.) Glykeria’s voice has grown raspier over time yet, if anything, stronger. The bigger stages have brought her orchestral accompaniment in lieu of small groups, and there’s been a loss of subtlety to large-scale theater. But Glykeria was born for that: She’s an artist able to fill stadiums with her voice alone, a force of nature.
Neither as intense nor as unfiltered is Georgia’s Nino Chxeidze. Yet her off-kilter beauty and down-to-earthiness radiate a child-like delight in having won the lottery of stardom, even in so compact a firmament as the Republic of Georgia. The fact that titles of YouTube postings for both ladies are often in indecipherable scripts (Greek and Georgian) underscores their music’s tantalizing `not for export’ essence.