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Lungu Lungu: Where Does It All Fit?

photographer Jane Hahn

Ghana-based Benjamin Lebrave speaks fluent French and English, and can schmooze in Spanish and Portuguese. He’ll report on new African music every other week. This week, in anticipation of his talk at the World Music Expo, he looks at the state of "world music" and future of the sounds he loves.

This week I'm going to WOMEX, the largest trade show devoted to world music. Every time I attend WOMEX, I wonder what hat I should be wearing. I don't feel like world music is an accurate description of the music I'm interested in. Beyond semantics, my experience has been that only a sliver of what I like and work with intersects with what I can push at WOMEX.

Still, WOMEX is making a significant effort to expand and challenge its guests' musical horizons: it now showcases DJs and acts relying mostly on electronics to create their music. It also hosts a number of interesting panels and talks. Even as I question my role and objectives at the conference, I've been given the opportunity to open up the dialogue and host a conversation on world music, global bass and the future of hybrid music. I think many of this column's readers would enjoy chiming into the conversation, so I wanted to outline a few of the ideas behind it here.

Back in the 1980s, following Bob Marley’s international success, music producers turned to new territories in search of the next big thing. The idea was to reproduce Chris Blackwell’s enormous success with Marley: find artists rooted in some local tradition, and shape their music into products palatable for a Western audience. The labels produced so much music that a new section needed to be created in record stores. Moguls and marketing wizards had a series of meetings, and they came up with the term world music.

Fast forward to today: there is a lot of diverse music being recorded all over the world, and a lot of it is made without involving the West in the creative process. In Africa alone, as this column proves, there is a whole lot—from Wawesh's beats to BIG FKN GUN's raps—that does not to fit the standard world music bill. Some of the music I've shared in this column, as well as some of the music I've released on my label Akwaaba, fits into what many are calling global bass. This seems to be the unifying term to refer to electronic music made on both sides of the southern Atlantic, or inspired by such genres: cumbia, Funk Carioca, kwaito, kuduro, or any of the hybrids created by hordes of beatmakers all over the globe, spearheaded by Diplo, Buraka and the like.

You may have noticed that I practically never used the terms world music, global bass or afrobeats in the 30+ posts I've written for Lungu Lungu. I have the immense privilege of experiencing many of the genres I talk about first hand, so I always make sure to situate the songs and artists I focus on within their local context. I do my best to translate the various local realities into something you can relate to and understand. I use the songs to explain what genres are emerging, dominating local scenes or branching out beyond borders. So I use words like azonto, kuduro, gbema or cool catché. Or even kwatsiru and trance jazz.

I leave it to each one of you to decide where the songs in Lungu Lungu fit into your playlists. Although a kuduro fanatic in Luanda will show very little interest in British dubstep, a dubstep head in London or Chennai will probably appreciate kuduro, maybe even Shangaan or gbema. This is not to say that Luandan kuduro lovers are less open-minded. Rather, kuduro is a lot more than just a style—it's a dance, it's a movement, and it cannot be substituted for something with a similar beat as easily in Angola as it does in clubs all over the globe, where it is only perceived as music.

For those people listening to music abroad, where the songs inevitably lose part of their local context, bunching genres together does make sense. That is why world music or global bass are convenient catchalls for foreign fans. Most Ethiopian jazz fans I know also enjoy Brazilian forró or Gipsy music, most kuduro enthusiasts like baile funk or moombahton. These people are typically world music fans, or global bass heads.

But I see two major shifts that will challenge these categories, and more generally challenge how music is perceived and marketed all over the world.

First, the disappearance of record stores has partially eroded the need to fit into a specific category. Shops are the reason why the expression world music was coined, but now that shelf space and access to information are virtually infinite, is there really such a strong need to bundle all this music together? So the diversity of music increases everywhere I look. Just A Band are from Kenya, Saba is from Ethiopia, Alec Lomami from the Democratic Congo. There is no musical unity, no matter how you look at it. If these artists don't fit into global bass or world music, it's because they don't need to.

Second, there are more and more countries with an adequate economy in which to build a vibrant music scene. Not only are people recording more music, there are more circuits for artists to make a living without needing to tour Western countries. This means that how the music is perceived in London or New York is less and less relevant, both from a creative and from an economic standpoint.

Take J Martins or P-Square. Surely, they do go to London to play big shows once in a while, but that's not how they make a living. Endorsements at home are what keeps their rims shiny. This reality is spreading to other countries. 3ball is becoming mainstream in Mexico, Windeck is now the name of a popular telenovela in Angola and Ghana's azonto craze is spreading all over the world.

So, my dear Lungu Lungu readers, I hope you appreciate the diversity of music I've shared with you here. I'm actually quite curious to know who likes what and how it all fits into what you listen to. Feel free to let me know. Also, if this conversation is of interest to you, please join the dialogue by posting questions under comments here. The most relevant questions will be addressed during the panel at WOMEX this Friday.

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Lungu Lungu: Where Does It All Fit?