We live in an endlessly fascinating time for trans-global musical dialogue. Where even a couple of decades ago, the music industry’s centres of gravity were overwhelmingly in Europe and the US – with other continents put through a filter of exoticism and/or reliant on patronage. Now, things are altogether more multipolar.
Not only are the music industries of Africa, Asia and Latin America making themselves heard on their own terms, and as such, contributing to a vivid new, globalised, pop culture – the internet has exponentially increased access to archives of other cultures.
Now that it's possible to access decades' worth of music and documentation, and even to track down and talk to previously impossible obscure musicians, the opportunities to learn from that music in every more sophisticated ways are immense.
So immense, in fact, that it feels like we're only just getting to grips with them. Where once upon a time, western producers might clumsily aim for an “African rhythm” or “Eastern atmosphere”, now, at last, it's more and more common to engage with geographically distant traditions on a level of fine detail of musicianship.
We're clearly in a good period for this. Already this year we've had Beatrice Dillon's breakthrough Workaround album, blending detailed electronica and UK bass elements with Kadialy Kouyate's kora and Kuljit Bhamra's tabla among other instruments.
And upcoming in the coming weeks are the Invisible Cities album from Bristol producer, multi-instrumentalist and soundtrack composer William Yates aka Memotone, The Infinity Of Now by the globally-minded psychedelic jazz funk collective The Heliocentrics, and Journey: The Ambient Mixes, a collection of nine reworks by superproducer Youth (pictured in the lead photo), of tracks by the Australian Sikh devotional singer-songwriter Manika Kaur, with proceeds going to a charity for Punjabi children.
They are radically different records, mind you. Memotone's is state-of-the-art in its creation of mysterious and intriguing sound worlds, and its incorporation of acoustic instruments and digital techniques.
The Heliocentrics – very much a band without digital enhancement, even though they are now signed to hip-hop legend Madlib's new label – have long brought West and East African and Middle Eastern influences into their work, and these are blended more completely than ever into intense, tightly structured songs.
The Kaur/Youth album, meanwhile is epic in its scope, radiant electronic sounds enveloping and swooping around you, all in services of Kaur's blissful melodies.
The ways these different musicians approach their inspirations and instruments are just as different from one another, too. All are aware of the pitfalls and accusations that can come when integrating cultures through music. And those accusations can be extreme, after all.
“I remember,” says Malcolm Catto of The Heliocentrics, “Lloyd Miller accusing us of ‘cultural genocide’ for using a harmonic minor scale on one of our tracks, claiming that this was the West's generalised version of the Middle East!”
Eighty-two-year-old Miller is an American jazz musician and ethnomusicologist himself, and has recorded with the Heliocentrics, so we can maybe read a little tongue-in-cheek attitude into his critique.
Certainly Catto brushes his criticism aside. “Will then dress in Lederhausen clothing and play German oompah band music?” he laughs. He is extremely wary of the idea of cultural appropriation in general, unless it's to “deliberately send up that form of music or to make a joke or belittle the particular culture in question”.
“We don’t consciously copy any genres,” Catto's Heliocentrics partner Jake Henderson says, “[But] we are all record collectors, and are influenced by the music we listened to which is often from many different parts of the world – Mali, Persia, Thailand etc. The melodies, scales and rhythms become part of you in effect if you listen intently enough.”
The one time they have explicitly played to genre is when they've collaborated with musicians like Ethiopian keyboard legend Mulatu Astatke, or the Nigerian saxophonist and Afrobeat pioneer Orlando Julius. Then, says Henderson, “We have been introduced to new scales and rhythms, but we don’t deliberately set out to appropriate these into our music – it just happens naturally.”
For William Yates, much of the influence comes from the physical instruments themselves. “Learning how an instrument is supposed to be played,” he says, “can say a lot about the type of music it was designed to play and give clues as to where that music originated geographically.
“For example, I own a guzheng – a type of Chinese zither – and the way it is designed, and also the scale in which is it tuned, is intrinsically linked to traditional Chinese music, and by extension - the Far East.”
But Yates expressly aims to look beyond existing cultures. Invisible Cities is named after Italo Calvino's 1972 book of fantastical travelogues of imagined metropolises, and he also names Glasgow's 12th Isle podcast as an influence.
This latter is a treasure trove of the “Fourth World” music from the late 70s onwards, where artists like Jon Hassell and Holger Czukay aimed to make a kind of musical speculative fiction. “I think,” says Yates, “this is absolutely valid as a genre or concept. I'm not sure if there has ever, or will ever, be a time in human history where creating worlds that don't exist, was, or will be, irrelevant!”
Youth, meanwhile, who actually knew Holger Czukay back in the early 80s, is much less conceptual and more cosmic in his methods. “I do think it's possible to create different dimensions with music,” he says.
“I took the bones of [the tracks] and dived deep into the sound field and atmosphere Manika had created. I worked mostly on my own... I would immerse myself into a meditative mind state and from that point start creating and recreating the right vibes and atmospheres, ones that I would personally like to hear while meditating and chilling out. A lot of the music dreamed into existence!”
Kaur herself is very happy with this sense of generalised peace and pleasure. “Working with Youth and his genius ability to dive into the soundscape and create an experience for the listener makes the music all the more potent,” she says.
But Kaur's thoughts on cultural interplay are, in fact, more practical than cosmic. Asked if she is worried about the purity of traditional and religious music, she laughs. “Guru Nanak [the founder of Sikhism, who composed the lyrics that Kaur sets to music] was accompanied by Bhai Mardana who was a Muslim and played the rabab when Nanak would sing.
“[Also,] during the times of the Sikh Gurus there was no such thing as the harmonium which is predominantly used in the world of Kirtan [religious narration] today. The harmonium (VAJA) was invented in France in 1840 and brought to India in the mid-19th century. It became very popular in India because it was portable, affordable and easy to learn.”
That is to say, the music to which some consider a timeless tradition was an intercontinental fusion in the first place. Catto, too, reminds us that the Nigerian Afrobeat that has inspired his music was itself partly inspired in the 1970s by the British rock scene.
None of this should blind us to the fact that appropriation does exist. There are still in the music world plenty of crass lifting of elements of other cultures – driven by no more than greed or prurient exoticism.
But when you hear the passion of The Heliocentrics' playing, the breadth of imagination in Memotone's imagined sonic worlds, or the sheer bliss in Youth and Kaur's airborne soundcapes, it's hard not to take Catto's words seriously when he says: “Many styles are like all the rivers that eventually flow into the sea to be diffused with water from all over the world and then returned to replenish those same rivers again and again.”
Or, as Kaur puts it: “If this kind of music that includes people from all backgrounds and the gift their instruments so beautifully offers to the track can reach a wider audience and with it bring a little bit of peace to the listener while at the same time serving a higher purpose as all proceeds are used for charity work… well I can’t imagine what is more Sikhi [true to Sikh ideals] than that.”
Cover Image: Glen Burrows
Writer | Joe Muggs
Joe Muggs is a writer, DJ and curator of many years standing, covering both mainstream and underground. His book 'Bass, Mids, Tops', covering decades of UK bass music, is out now via Strange Attractor / MIT Press, and you can subscribe to his newsletter at tinyletter.com/joemuggs